The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: The genesis of the Hunger Games

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsI loved Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games, thought Catching Fire was quite good if not as great as the first one, and was only so-so on Mockingjay. Also, it’s an uphill battle to write a good, enjoyable prequel if the reader already knows what’s going to happen to the main character in the later books and (spoiler) it’s highly unpleasant. So I hesitated for over a year to read Collin’s latest HUNGER GAMES book, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (2020), but when I saw it on my local library’s shelf a few weeks ago I decided to give it a shot. It was surprisingly good!

It’s some sixty-four years before Katniss will enter the Hunger Games. The Capitol recently won a brutal civil war against the rebellious districts, and as part of their punishment of the districts, instituted the Hunger Games ten years ago. The Games aren’t the spectacle that they will later become; they’re more a brief, brutal battle to the death between twenty-four hapless youths, a boy and a girl from each district, who are kept in filthy cages before the Games start and fight in a dilapidated sports arena. Little attention is paid to the Games by most people, so, to try to increase the Hunger Games’ popularity with viewers, this year those in charge of the Games have assigned a high school-aged mentor to each contestant.

Teenager Coriolanus Snow is from a distinguished Capitol family that has fallen into the depths of poverty but is desperately hiding it from everyone. When he’s chosen as a mentor and is assigned the District 12 tribute, Lucy Gray Baird, he’s initially fearful that she’s one of the weakest contestants and will hurt his chances for a needed college scholarship. So while he brainstorms ways to increase the mass appeal of the Games, Coriolanus finagles his way into meeting with Lucy Gray several times before the Games start, to try to increase her (and his) popularity with viewers. More importantly, Lucy Gray turns out to be far more intelligent, talented and attractive than Coriolanus or anyone else guessed, and his attraction to her grows along with his assessment of her chances for winning the Games.

As in the main HUNGER GAMES trilogy, the action in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is melded with social commentary. Here, though, the overall story is much more deliberately paced, as it focuses on the internal thoughts and psychology of Coriolanus Snow and the people and society around him. Collins does a great job of creating a conflicted, complex character in teenage Coriolanus Snow, who’s from a distinguished Capitol family that has fallen into the depths of poverty but is desperately hiding it from everyone. This desperation informs Coriolanus’ character and choices: social, educational and financial security and the good opinion of others are so important to him, and it easily slides into self-centeredness and pride. He’s charming, intelligent and well-spoken, but ruthlessly ambitious (“Snow always lands on top!” is the family motto) and often deceptive. Still, at this point in his life there’s still good in Coriolanus, and being around Lucy Gray brings out the better part of him.

HUNGER GAMESAs a counterpart to the goodness and morality of Lucy Gray and Coriolanus’ classmate Sejanus, there’s Dr. Gaul, a coldblooded teacher who conducts cruel genetic experiments and creates both human and animal mutations, including neon-colored, deadly snakes, and seems to view herself as a kind of mentor to Coriolanus. The snakes and songbirds motif surfaces repeatedly, as both birds and serpents play roles in the story in both physical and symbolic ways: Lucy Gray Baird (Bird?) is a singer with a musical group called the Covey (a small group of birds); Coriolanus makes use of the recording abilities of jabberjays but is disturbed by the crossbred, unruly mockingjays; and snakes become a key element in the plot … more than once, in fact.

It’s interesting to see the differences between where the Hunger Games are at this point in time and what they become a generation later, when Katniss plays. You can see the seeds of a lot of those later changes beginning here. Many of the facets of the games in Katniss’ day, like betting on contestants and sending them food and valuable goods by drones, have their genesis here.

Extra points to the author for the depth added to this novel through her inclusion of various philosophies about human nature and warfare, which play out in the various characters’ roles and the choices Coriolanus makes. Tip: take just a few minutes to familiarize yourself a little with the competing philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, if you’re not already knowledgeable about them. Collins also explains her thinking and these philosophies in an intriguing afterword.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a book that has deeper layers to dig out and think over. It’s not always pleasant to be in the head of a future dictator, but it’s a fascinating view into the development of both his personality and the Hunger Games themselves.

Published in MAY 2020. It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capitol, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to outcharm, outwit, and outmaneuver his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute. The odds are against him. He’s been given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, the lowest of the low. Their fates are now completely intertwined – every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favor or failure, triumph or ruin. Inside the arena, it will be a fight to the death. Outside the arena, Coriolanus starts to feel for his doomed tribute … and must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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One comment

  1. I also had declining interest in the original series as it went on, but Songbirds & Snakes is probably my favourite installment overall! I particularly loved how natural the evolution of the Games felt, and how inseparable from the narrative the philosophy was. The social commentary in the original series felt a lot less focused, but this felt laser-sharp.

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