Title: The Ballad Of Songbirds & Snakes
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: Young Adult, Dystopia
A Ballad Of Songbirds & Snakes is the prequel to The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I first heard about the book on Instagram and as it is also being adapted into a movie which is due out at the end of this year I decided to check it out before hand.
The book is set 64 years before the events of the first Hunger Games novel and focusses on an 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow, who becomes the President and ruler of Panem in the aforementioned trilogy. The 10th Hunger Games is about to take place and the Capitol has decided to offer a mentorship program where students from the Academy will be selected to act as mentors to the tributes and Snow is preparing for his last stab at glory in the Games.
During the war, the House of Snow has fallen on hard times and is trying to keep the wolves from their door. Coriolanus sees winning the Games as a slender chance of resolving his families issues, getting a place at University and dragging his cousin Tigris and Grandma out of poverty. However he is assigned the female tribute from District 12, Lucy Gray Baird, the lowest of the low.
However, there is more to Lucy than meets the eye and as their fates intertwine can Coriolanus help his tribute survive the Games? Also as he begins to feel for his tributes predicament, can she potentially offer a saving grace for or will his thirst for power push him over the edge?
The version of Panem Collins creates in this novel is significantly different to that inhabited by Katniss in the Hunger Games. In this world the rebellion is still fresh in the minds of many people and as a result the Capitol’s hold onto power is far more delicate and finely balanced and the Hunger Games are seen as a necessary evil in order to stop the districts from uprising again.
Of course, anyone who has read the Hunger Games knows the ultimate fate of Snow from that trilogy but it is interesting to see a different side to his character in this book. He clearly still has the cold ambition and determination that led him to power but here he is at the bottom of the pile so we also see his skills of manipulation which he no doubt used to claw his way to the top in the intervening years.
There is also a vulnerability to him through this book which makes him a character that you do find yourself sympathising with. Along with his cousin Tigris he saw many things in the war with the districts that it could be argued children shouldn’t see, from murder and bombings to even cannibalism on the streets of the Capitol. As a result it is easier to empathise with his belief that what he is doing is out of necessity, even though there are times throughout the book where he seems to question whether he has done the right thing and we also question whether it is the right thing.
The character of Lucy Gray Baird is also fascinating, she is presented as being someone who is quite vulnerable in some aspects but also clearly has a survival instinct – this is shown when she is first introduced as tribute and she uses a snake to poison the mayor’s daughter Mayfair who is having a relationship with her boyfriend Billy Taupe. She is also a musician with a gifted voice and it is interesting to see her character affect Coriolanus and you do find yourself hoping by the end that she does manage to change him for the better. There is also some parallels I think with Katniss in some respects as her voice does win over people in the Capitol in the same way Katniss’ sacrifice for Prim did in the original book and her and Coriolanus’s relationship is an interesting one borne out of necessity and circumstance.
I even did wonder at one point if Coriolanus did actually end up marrying her but then you also realise that she would have to learn to accept his darker, manipulative side and whether she would be capable of doing that.
The central villain of the novel is the sinister Dr. Gaul, who runs The Hunger Games and conducts genetic experiments on animals and humans alike in her laboratory. She is truely terrifying in the book and I think she also asks interesting questions of Coriolanus as you wonder how much of who he becomes is down to his personality, his circumstances or Dr. Gaul pulling the strings in the background. It is definitely a thought provoking character study into a villain from the earlier books.
The book also does have backstory for a lot of the more macabre parts of The Hunger Games, we learn Coriolanus’s father and Dean at the Academy were the ones who gave Dr. Gaul the idea for the Games. We also learn that Dean Highbottom is racked with guilt over coming up with such an evil idea and has succumbed to morphling and alcohol to numb these feelings.
Also aspects such as the Capitol being allowed to bet on the tributes, the victor winning a house if they win the Games and the mentors being able to send in food packages are also all explained in this book.
I think my main two negatives is obviously this book is a prequel so the trajectory of the book is pretty clear from the outset, especially for fans of the original trilogy so I would recommend new readers do read this prequel first before progressing to the trilogy.
Also the ending of the book and Snow’s descent into becoming the cold-hearted character we know in the trilogy does come across quite sudden in the book, occurring in the last few chapters or so and seems a bit off compared to the rest of the book.
However for an insight into one of the villains of the biggest YA series of the 2010’s I would definitely recommend giving this one a try.