No-Spoilers Book Review
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: A Hunger Games Novel (Hunger Games #0)
by Suzanne Collins
Hardback edition, 517 pages.
Published May 19, 2020 by Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic
Eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Hunger Games, and 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
Ambition will fuel him
Competition will drive him
But power has its price
Inside Jacket Cover
It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games…
The odds are against him. Coriolanus has 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…and he must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes.
- Young adult villain origin story (A kinder, gentler Snow? Yes and no)
- Themes of just war theory, reconstruction, how to manage bitterness toward and hate of the fallen enemy, and how to maintain peace
- A deep dive into how far people will go to survive and gain control; we get a glimpse into Coriolanus’ thought process
- A nascent Hunger Games and arena (and even the process for handling and preparing tributes)
- Acknowledgment of inequities in the world: Coriolanus’ friend says:“You’ve no right to starve people, to punish them for no reason. No right to take away their life and freedom. Those are things everyone is born with and they’re not yours for the taking. Winning a war doesn’t give you that right. Having more weapons doesn’t give you that right. Having more weapons doesn’t give you that right. Being from the Capitol doesn’t give you that right. Nothing does.”
- Insider’s guide to origins of all things Hunger Games! (The song, the roses, the odds, etc….there are so many parallels)
- Tigris is mentioned on the first page! And she’s a main character!
- The humor
- First love
- The age-old battle between good and evil, not just in the Games, but within himself
A Minor Controversy in Fandom
When I first learned about the prequel, I headed to Goodreads to learn more. I, like many other Hunger Games fans, was surprised to read the prequel would focus on President Snow’s early years. This did not go over well with some readers. Many wanted to read about Haymitch, Katniss’ mentor.
In this era of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoices, some people were vocal about not wanting to read about another white, male protagonist. Some simply didn’t want to feel sympathy for the boy who would grow up to become the villain in The Hunger Games trilogy.
I can understand both points of view, and it is indeed disappointing to not see any major characters of color in this novel. The only “diverse” characters we see are the Avoxes, introduced by the trilogy; the Capitol has punished them (presumably for treason) by cutting out their tongues and forcing them to work as servants.
But…and this is a big but: the author addresses one of the major themes with compassion, and the following conversation about Capitol versus District residents echoes the voices of many in our own world today as we work to address our country’s problematic racist history, and dismantle structural racism.
“To imagine that on either side we lack intelligence, strength, or courage would be a mistake.”
“But sure you’re not comparing our children to theirs?…One look tells you ours are a superior breed.”
“One look tells you ours have had more food, nicer clothing, and better dental care…Assuming anything more, a physical, mental, or especially a moral superiority, would be a mistake. That sort of hubris almost finished us off in the war.”
Ultimately, I decided to read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes because I love Suzanne Collins’ ability to write complex, believable characters we fall in love with, and to immerse readers in a different world that could become our reality if we’re not careful. Panem is, after all, the country that rose from the ashes of what was once North America.
Also, isn’t it important, interesting and educational to learn how a person becomes evil? If someone is scared and hurting, don’t we want to know how to intervene and help them before they hurt or destroy themselves and possibly others?
A main theme in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes reminds me of Yoda’s line from the first movie in the second Star Wars trilogy, The Phantom Menace: “Fear is the path to the dark side,” he tells young Anakin Skywalker. “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
In the first paragraph or the first page, we see Coriolanus hungry, always hungry, which is a parallel to the plight of Katniss and her family (they almost starved to death) in The Hunger Games. This is what creative writing teachers will tell you is essential in the hero’s journey of your own novel: the protagonist and antagonist want the same thing. Katniss and Coriolanus Snow share the same goal – food, comfort and safety – and share the characteristics of love for their family, intelligence, tenacity, resilience, and determination to achieve their goal.
I highly recommend this coming-of-age novel that shows us how we shouldn’t be. It’s a character-driven psychological drama that is also engaging and suspenseful.
This Best-Selling Author’s Secret
Suzanne Collins writes about her passions, which is what literary agents tell aspiring authors when asked “What should I write?” Her father served in the military in Vietnam, and this has influenced her two book series.
Read the Kirkus Reviews interview “Suzanne Collins Talks Hunger Games Prequel.” (Beware of spoilers! Don’t read this if you’d rather be surprised, like I do. You can read this after you finish the novel.)
from the Epigraph
“I thought of the promise of virtues which he had displayed on the opening of his existence, and the subsequent blight of all kindly feeling by the loathing and scorn which his protectors had manifested towards him.”
– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818
Coriolanus released the fistful of cabbage into the pot of boiling water and swore that one day it would never pass his lips again. But this was not that day. He needed to eat a large bowl of the anemic stuff, and drink every drop of broth, to prevent his stomach from growling during the reaping ceremony. It was one of a long list of precautions he took to mask the fact that his family, despite residing in the penthouse of the Capitol’s most opulent apartment building, was as poor as district scum. That at eighteen, the heir to the once-great house of Snow had nothing to live on but his wits.
Suzanne Collins is the author of the bestselling Underland Chronicles series, which started with Gregor the Overlander. Her groundbreaking young adult novels, The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, were New York Times bestsellers, received wide praise, and were the basis for four popular films. Year of the Jungle, her picture book based on the year her father was deployed in Vietnam, was published in 2013 to great critical acclaim. To date, her books have been published in 53 languages around the world.
Katherine Valdez loves to read and write about books. She laments the proliferation of reviews that give away too much of the plot.
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