The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes — In-Depth Book Review
Warning: This review contains major spoilers!
It's been ten years since the final installment of Suzanne Collin's Hunger Games trilogy was released, and since the announcement and publication of a prequel to the beloved dystopian story, many readers have been asking—why? Do we really need a new Hunger Games? Is there anything left for Collins to say about Panem, its rulers, and the people of District 12?
I had questions. I went into this with low expectations. A villain origin story about President Snow? Meh. A female tribute from District 12? Oh, please.
But for all my pre-reading qualms, I've got to admit...I loved this book so much.
I first read The Hunger Games trilogy back in 2013. So...quite a long time ago. Looking back, I was probably too young to fully grasp the concepts and symbolism that Suzanne Collins was trying to paint on that canvas; but it was pretty foundational to my love for world-building stories and mythos, and was a launchpad of sorts into sparking my own journey as a writer and storyteller.
I was pretty excited when I heard last year that Collins was writing a prequel to the trilogy, but I confess, with every bit of information we got and the closer we arrived to a synopsis and a title, I just felt discouraged. It didn't seem like the prequel I wanted. I didn't really care about Snow's journey to power. I was hoping it would be about a good character we already knew and loved, such as Mags or even Haymitch.
Release day hit. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was subject to a mixed bag of 'meh' from readers across the spectrum. I didn't pre-order it, so I had nothing to be disappointed in. And then—I stumbled across a reader's review saying that this was the best book in the series. Ok, now I was intrigued. This book—this reeeeally 'meh' book, is better than the original trilogy? I succumbed. I ordered The Ballad, whether to love or to hate—I'd decide that for myself.
Fast forward five days. I've just finished this enigmatic, misunderstood prequel...and you know what? To that brave book reviewer of the unpopular opinion who inspired me to read it: I just so happen to agree with you.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes feels like another age compared to the Panem we know in the days of Katniss Everdeen. The original trilogy feels distinctly dystopian and futuristic. It's the kind of story that everyone says 'could happen one day, maybe like in a couple hundred years and if people make really bad decisions.' The prequel, however, feels eerily closer to us.
Coriolanus Snow is, at the start of the book, similar to a lot of people out there. He's out for himself, will charm his way into getting what he wants and advancing his situation, hides his dire homelife predicament, and has his eye out for a future of power and riches. Can we just accept the fact, here and now, that almost everyone you meet has similar goals of achievement and success? Up to you.
Now, I'm not going to get into the plot line so much because if you're reading this review, I expect you've read the book—and if you haven't, what are you still doing here, where spoilers run amuck?
I think the most interesting part of this book is the strained, highly-manipulative dynamic between Coriolanus and Dr. Gaul, the Head Gamemaker. She is Coryo's first taste of the true nature and mindset behind the corruption of the Games, from the snake incident with Clemensia, to her wacky, torturous human lab experiments. The real conflict of this book isn't between Coriolanus and himself or Lucy Gray—it's between him and Dr. Gaul.
Dr. Gaul has an instinct about Coriolanus's future potential. She sees that he is intelligent, calculating, and willing to do whatever he can to advance himself in power. She uses that instinct to manipulate his thinking, causing him to open his mind towards the powers that thread the Capitol's establishment and the need for a highly controlling and all-powerful government.
I was so compelled by how Gaul's hints and assignments began to contort Snow's thinking to match her own. Early on, she asks her students why they think the Capitol holds the Hunger Games. Coriolanus hasn't quite wrapped his head around his understanding of the Games yet, but has an inherent belief in the Capitol system without being in complete knowledge of its truer precepts. After Clemensia's snake-accident, he is disgusted by Gaul's explicit disregard for human life and feels sick whenever he sees her. He starts to question her sadistic ideas about humanity—as Gaul intended he would.
The advent of Lucy Gray Baird in Coryo's life is a turning point, as it makes him question the Games and Dr. Gaul even more critically. He begins to realize that these poor district kids are actually human beings like himself. He starts to see that society has tried to cover up their poor treatment of the districts by labeling them as less than human and closer to beasts. He's infuriated by the disregard shown to the tributes, from starving them to letting them huddle in a zoo like animals in a caged exhibition. Lucy Gray becomes a lamp of knowledge to Coryo because she forces him to think about the established society and the ideology he's been raised to accept his whole life.
When Lucy's in the arena, Coriolanus does everything he can to ensure that she comes out as victor. Interestingly enough, he even questions his own motive in doing so—whether it's actually out of love for Lucy, or the desire to advance his own career and path to power. He seems to favor the former as a worthier motive. After she does win the Games, Dr. Gaul saves his back by covering the cheating scandal and moving the right pawns to ensure that Coriolanus isn't publically disgraced. She wants him to do big things, right?
While Coryo is living his miserable, dirty, District 12 peacekeeper life, he keeps thinking back to Dr. Gaul and her last assignment. He even goes so far as to write to her and tell her how his thoughts are changing as he sees more of the country. He's progressively aligning his thoughts with her own, believing that the people must be contained, limited, punished, and kept in check. He hates the idea of freedom and disorder for those he imagines do not deserve it. His views about the worth of human life become pretty severe.
We probably should talk about Sejanus Plinth somewhere, because boy, he was the only good egg in a rotten dozen! Sejanus is the moral compass of the entire book. He hates Dr. Gaul passionately, hates everything the Capitol and the Games stand for, and has a vision for a brighter future where there is no Panem, no Peacekeepers, no Capitol-controlled government. He seems to be the only character who has an inherent sense of what's right and what's wrong.
Coriolanus is a pawn in the game—but Sejanus is a mockingjay.
In fact, both Lucy Gray and Sejanus are the symbol the mockingjay stands for. Coriolanus has an inherent hatred for the infamous birds because they are a creation the Capitol never intended to be, and in essence, are a mockery of the Capitol's failure in extinguishing them. Neither Sejanus or Lucy are either true District or true Capitol, but stand in between, belonging nowhere. They each exist as a mockery, as they fail to fit into the Capitol-devised social categories. They each yearn for freedom and escape.
But back to how Coryo becomes the monstrous, vile President Snow we know and hate. What started as a jerky, pretentious teen becomes someone who isn't above barbarism or murder. He believes the arena has, as Dr. Gaul says, the ability to turn humanity into brutes without moral decency. Once you're in that arena, it's every man for himself—no trust, no teams, no rules. For this philosophy taking shape, only one thing stand's in Coryo's way:
Sejanus breaks into the arena and has an emotional breakdown heralded by the death of his tribute. He doesn't care what becomes of him, or if the remaining tributes will come out and attack him. He is moved only by compassion and the moral compass that guides him. Sejanus doesn't let the arena turn him into a barbarian—it has the opposite effect Dr. Gaul or Coriolanus believed it would: it strengthens his humanity.
This book has an underlying narrative so expertly crafted through the dynamic between Coryo and Sejanus. It shows us that humanity has a choice, always. We don't have to be controlled by our environment—we can only control the choices we make as individuals. Sejanus didn't let the arena or the Capitol turn him into something other than who he was.
It reminds me of something Peeta said to Katniss on the eve of the 74th Hunger Games: "I just don't want them to change me."
I found the end of the book incredibly satisfying. Lucy's revelation of Coryo's character and the death of Sejanus hit before Corianus even realizes himself what he's going to do. The ending is hauntingly tragic for Lucy Gray, who, like her poetic namesake, gets lost in the snow with a nameless fate. I know, I've glossed over Lucy quite a bit here, but she's such an interesting character that I think we might have to dedicate a separate blog post to her sometime.
All in all, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was a wonderful read. It was deeply thought-provoking and full of new meanings to unearth upon every page. Is it for everyone? I guess not, given how many negative reviews it's received. The thing with The Ballad is that it's not action or plot-driven—it's actually driven by characterization and philosophy: the shifts of Coriolanus's thinking as he slowly delves deeper into the destructive pathway at the hands of Dr. Gaul.
In the end, Coriolanus Snow is nothing more than another of Dr. Gaul's lab experiments. She was able to manipulate his thinking and push him into becoming a tyrannical monster. In effect, is he anything more than one of her jabberyjays, like a remote-control operated pet used to do her bidding?
Until next time,