WARNING: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW!
Suzanne Collins has once again blessed us with a magnificent novel. The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes (TBOSAS) is the prequel to The Hunger Games (THG) I never knew I needed. Like most naive readers, I automatically presumed that this prequel wouldn’t be anything special: why would I want to read such a thing when I already know the outcome? But I can honestly say I’ve never been more wrong.
The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes follows Coriolanus Snow (ie President Snow in THG) as a teenager through his own first Hunger Games. Now, little Snow here isn’t going into the arena himself, instead, he is left mentoring a young girl by the name of Lucy Gray Baird – a singer from District Twelve. To give a brief overview without spoiling too much: Snow and Lucy Gray build a connection which makes him want her to win. His original reasons are selfish, he needs her to win in order to gain a scholarship to a university, but things change as he spends more time with his young songbird.
Collins miraculously gives the reader the opportunity to feel sympathy for Snow, something those of us who have read THG would think is impossible. Within THG trilogy Snow comes off as the cunning, cruel, and unapologetic ruler of the Panem. His harsh ruling of the Districts is constantly echoed throughout the novel. Even in his death, he is still seen as a monster, seemingly looking amused as Katniss Everdeen stands before him. Yet ironically, throughout TBOSAS the reader finds themselves routing for young Snow. His life, quite frankly, is a mess. After the war he is left poor, orphaned and scared. He is tormented by his teachers and is constantly put in dangerous situations, all because he wishes to go to a good university. The novel itself is flooded with themes that were echoed within THG trilogy: friendship, love, right vs wrong, and them vs use. As you watch young Snow try and navigate his way through the games, you realise just how innocent he is (to an extent). It is clear that none of the mentors want to participate, many calling it inhumane, yet they too are forced by the Capitol with the idea of a university scholarship dangling before them like a carrot to a donkey, leaving Dr Gaul as the metaphorically stick. Ironically, many of the Capitol residents themselves don’t watch the games with Snow stating ‘most people took no pleasure in remembering the war’. But the notion of Them Vs Us is constantly brought up by Snow’s teacher Dr Gaul, highlighted dramatically during the end of the novel.
Throughout the novel we see the tributes of each district treated with blatant disrespect: they are underfed, confined to chains, and kept to in a zoo. As a student of literature, I can’t help but examine Collins’s choices. The decision to show the tributes being starved, chained, and displayed brings forth the uncomfortable images of slavery. Slaves are often portrayed as starved or underfed when traveling from their original homeland to the home of their oppressors (and sometimes even after that). They are also bound by chains in numerous depictions, once again, through their travels. And Collins’s choice to hold the tributes within a zoo brought forth a horrible truth: there were human zoos in history, this is not a figment of torture her mind has created but instead a comment on past corruptions. Bearing this in mind, I can’t help but feel that Collins has used her platform to comment on the mistreatment of slaves throughout slavery through her creation of the tributes. If this piece of microcosmic metaphor is correct, the treatment of the tributes throughout the THG series must also be examined. Despite the tributes in THG being treated (arguably) more ‘fairly’, I can’t help but ask myself if Collins is once again making a political statement. Is she now claiming that slavery is still present in our day to day lives, but instead of being starved, chained and placed in cages, we are encouraged to fight against each other to win a fake sense of freedom? Or is it more simple? Is this the myth of meritocracy humanised? Or is this a simple slap in the face of capitalism and entitlement? But like most of the questions literary critics find, the answer will never know.
The theme of friendship is shown throughout the novel with the most interesting relationship being between Snow and Sejanus Plinth. Plinth is rich, from district two (but relocated to the Capitol after the war thanks to his father’s money), and is the complete opposite of Snow. Their friendship highlights the theme of “them vs us” with Snow struggling to support his friends’ decisions throughout the novel. Not only is Plinth’s and Snow’s friendship an illumination of ‘”them vs us”, their friendship also constantly echoes the idea of “right vs wrong”. Plinth is one of the only characters to ever question the morality of the Games as a whole, using his platform to scrutinise the system, his classmates, the head game makers and himself. Bravery echoes throughout every question he asks. Yet despite this, him and Snow still remain friends. The main reason for Snow’s struggle isn’t that Plinth is from district two but rather that, despite being from district two Plinth has everything Snow wants: a loving mother, constant food, and money. Their friendship, though seeming rather forced at the beginning, illuminates to the reader Snow’s wish to be a good person. He constantly tries to help Plinth, first at the zoo, then at the arena, and again during a lesson from Dr Gaul. He saves him multiple times when he knows he can choose not to. He doesn’t want Plinth to suffer at the hands of the Capitol despite being highly jealous of Plinth’s seeming perfect life. Even at the end of their friendship, Snow feels guilty: despite their differences, he never wanted to play a part in the downfall of his friend.
Ironically, throughout the novel we slowly watch Snow fall in love with Lucy Gray: much like Katniss’s love for Peeta, it crept up on him. Snow makes several choices which many readers will find disturbing, but his choice to save Lucy Gray isn’t one of them. Her love of life, the way she can woo a crowd and vibrant colours draw in those around her and even cold-hearted Snow can’t help but fall in love. How Collins chooses to end their love is ultimately the moment we as the reader see the birth of President Snow. All of his choices before this are made for survival: for both him and Lucy Gray. Yet once again we are reminded by a fantastic author that heartbreak can change a person unforgivably. It still doesn’t give him the right to be an awful dictator but it’s nice to see where his motivations come from.
Without giving too much away, the main reason why I believe The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes is a fantastic prequel is simply because it answers so many questions you subconsciously have when reading The Hunger Games. You get to see first hand the creation of the “Hanging Tree” song, you get to see why Snow despises mockingjays (which surprisingly isn’t just because of Katniss), and you get to understand why poison and roses play such a dramatic part of President Snow’s persona.
Like all good novels, it leaves more questions than are answered:
- Where is Lucy Gray?
- When did Victor’s start winning money?
- When did they put up the fence around District Twelve?
- When did the concept of tesserae (and by addition to this, multiple entries into The Hunger Games) get introduced into the districts?
- What happened between Snow and Tigris?
But I guess Collins’s just loves to keep her readers guessing.
For all those interested:
Link to The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ballad-Songbirds-Snakes-Hunger-Games/dp/0702300179/ref=asc_df_0702300179/?tag=googshopuk-21&linkCode=df0&hvadid=430902675017&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=10008246615649757755&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9045997&hvtargid=pla-910963072705&psc=1&th=1&psc=1&tag=&ref=&adgrpid=101598703098&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvadid=430902675017&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=10008246615649757755&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9045997&hvtargid=pla-910963072705
Link to Maiah Wynne’s versions of some of the songs within The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WTiROMfcKiI&list=PLFYSf4txXQ2d14zD45Fpp5hKBghXXA-tr