The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes Review
Recently, I read the latest book by Suazzane Colins, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. This book is a prequel to the Hunger Game series, which is known for keeping even reluctant readers flipping through the pages late into the night. I was excited to see a new installment: one that claimed to provide more backstory on the mysterious President Coriolanus Snow. So I’d like to give a brief review. I won’t waste your time; I’ll start with my conclusion, then you can read on if you want to know all the nitty-gritty details.
—Spoilers Lie Ahead, you have been warned. Seriously, do not read further if you want to avoid spoilers.—
I didn’t like this book. 3/10, do not recommend.*
*If you were a huge fan of the original series, you will find a few small rewards for reading the whole series. Buit if you only had a casual interest in the first book, and not in the franchise as a whole, I can’t say I’d recommend it. Check out some of my favorite books if you want something better to read.
This time around, the Hunger Games universe felt empty. We can clearly see that the Capitol and Hunger games are not as established. The result is a story that bears little resemblance to the original trilogy. Of course, the original trilogy is not without problems (a story for another time) but at least I was never bored. Ultimately, my complaints come down to a problem of boredom.
We get a look at what the future president and the Hunger Games were like in the past. Snow is (unsurprisingly) obsessed with appearing rich, even though his family is starting to run out of money. To her credit, Collins shows us how Snow is an actor at heart, and he isn’t afraid to manipulate others to keep up appearances.
We see his selfishness…
With the Capitol citizens:
Coriolanus could sense the audience beginning to warm up to his tribute, no longer bothering to keep their distance. People were easy to manipulate when it came to their children. So pleased to see them pleased.
“Even better,” said Coriolanus, sounding more confident than he felt. The quick reaction from the school unsettled him.
Toward his classmates:
He was always gracious to Io, though, and as a result, she adored him. With unpopular people, such a minor effort went such a long way.
With his friends:
As Coriolanus clapped him on the shoulder, he thought, I might need a favor.
I didn’t fully notice at first, but on every page, the signs are there. We can tell after a while that Snow is completely self-serving.
What about the Hunger Games?
The Hunger Games are a mere shadow of their former self. They are not televised in the districts, the mentors are naive students from the Capitol’s school, and the tributes are not well trained or prepared. It feels more like the Budget Games to me. This is compounded by the fact that we can only see Snow’s perspective, so we miss out on any excitement the arena perspective could bring. I know this book is about Snow, but the first section felt like it dragged on longer than was reasonable. We only had one key plot point, involving a nightly journey into the arena to rescue a classmate. This plot point felt a bit to me, and I have to admit I still don’t fully understand the character’s motivations during this scene. Finally, after an eternity, this section is over. Surprise, Coriolanus’ tribute (a District 12 girl named Lucy Gray) is the victor. I was half suspecting that we were going to be set up for surprise when she lost, but alas, no. Perhaps that could have been an explanation why Coriolanus was so evil and disturbed. (Anyone would become disturbed if they had to watch their mentee die in such a horrible way.)
Descent into madness
Part 2 and 3 serve to show us how Coriolanus slowly became more evil. His true colors begin to come out to the world. I’m not going to dive too much into the details, but suffice to say, the plot escalates rapidly.
These sections were slightly boring for me also. Coriolanus becomes a peacekeeper, and (wouldn’t you know it) travels to District 12, the only District that readers could be expected to care about. Here, he witnesses the hanging of a criminal named Arlo. We later find out that Lucy Gray writes a song inspired by Arlo’s last words to his lover. The song is named The Hanging Tree. This was probably my favorite part of the book in all honesty. It’s nice to know the origin of the song that is featured prevalently in the books and movies. However, here we can see a classic problem with prequel. They are always written later, and it shows in the writing and plot. The more cynical side of me acknowledges that this feels tacked on much later, and not in place from the beginning.
There was too much music in this book. The medium of text does not allow me to hear tunes. Normally I would just read the occasional song like a poem, but these songs were repetitive. Not only that but there were pages and pages of them. Perhaps a minor complaint, but it felt excessive. I was glad to finally reach the Hanging Tree, which I know the pre-defined melody for composed by James Newton Howard. After a while, I started to skip the songs out of sheer boredom. It wouldn’t be surprising if the inevitable movie rendition includes more fleshed-out versions of these songs, but for now they feel like a pointless gimmick.
The ending is chaotic and a bit unclear. I didn’t like how Lucy Gray was killed offscreen, I would have preferred confirmation of her death in some way. I also didn’t like how Snow suddenly was able to restore his former life. It felt a little too convenient how that worked out so quickly. He was able to cut out all the loose ends from his crimes, and he was home free. Then, he suddenly gets to go home. Oh yeah, Gaul was just testing him the whole time…sure. One review I read put it well, it felt like whiplash. In no time at all, he’s gone from a criminal Peacekeeper on the run from his crimes, to a Capitol aristocrat living the high life in his original house. Maybe the point of this was to show that Coriolanus didn’t work for anything, but it came across like lazy writing.
Ultimately, I felt like The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes suffered from the continual problem of lazy writing and poor pacing, resulting in a boring read. I can’t say I’d recommend it. That being said…
This book wasn’t all bad. Here are some favorite highlights/quotes in no particular order:
We learned that there were some people in the Capitol against the Hunger Games, which surprised me.
From Seanus in the Capitol:
I might be making things difficult for you. I’m sorry. It’s just . . .” Sejanus’s words began to spill out. “It’s just this whole Hunger Games thing is making me crazy! I mean, what are we doing? Putting kids in an arena to kill each other? It feels wrong on so many levels. Animals protect their young, right? And so do we. We try to protect children! It’s built into us as human beings. Who really wants to do this? It’s unnatural!”
The words “Hunger Games” (Book 1) and “Mockingjay” (Book 3) can unsuprisingly be found many times.
For the missing book, don’t worry, we hear the words from Coriolanus’ Grandma’am:
“It will only take a handful to get the word out,” said the Grandma’am. “It’s just the kind of story that catches fire.”
Sure, it felt a bit forced, but it made me smile nonetheless.
We can clearly see how little the capitol cares about the tributes’ health.
The book drives home the fact that the tributes are considered less than human.
When the tributes are hurt by a bomb: “I wouldn’t know,” said the doctor. “But they’ve got a top-notch veterinarian over there.”
When some of the tributes are killed by injuries from the bombing: Apparently, the veterinarian had done her best, but her repeated requests to admit them to the hospital had been refused.
Snow is a sociopath:
“He was glad about the erasure. It was just one more way to eliminate Lucy Gray from the world. The Capitol would forget her, the districts barely knew her, and District 12 had never accepted her as one of their own. In a few years, there would be a vague memory that a girl had once sung in the arena. And then that would be forgotten, too. Good-bye, Lucy Gray, we hardly knew you.”