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The Ballad of Birdsongs and Snakes (2020)
Book Reviews

The Ballad of Birdsongs and Snakes (2020)

A lackluster prequel to The Hunger Games showcasing Coriolanus Snow’s rise to power that, ultimately, goes nowhere.

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How far can one push a human soul before it cracks under pressure, of pushing people to their very limits until they break? It’s an idea that’s been tested throughout history and yet still such a novel idea. In the original series of The Hunger Games books (and movies) Coriolanus Snow is the villain, the leader of Panem pushing Katniss Everdeen’s buttons to see if she’ll bow down to the system, much like he did. It’s intriguing. It’s mysterious. It’s also been done before. Many times.

For many, Suzanne Collins’ hugely popular series marked a definitive moment in the genre, even if it did lean a bit too much on  Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale.

Her newest release, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a prequel to the original dystopian trilogy, is meant to breathe some life back into the Hunger Games trilogy. Prequels, sequels, spinoffs…all practically staples of genre fiction these days, particularly YA fiction. What could possibly go wrong?

Collins reveals Snow’s past, his upbringing, and the events that transpired that would lead him to rise to the position of dictatorial president of Panem. Learning about the backstory of a villain generally would be a source of interest, to discover what underhanded events Snow might have had to take part in to become the person he was in the Hunger Games. Such an intriguing premise, unfortunately, goes nowhere, ending up as dry and withered as Snow’s trademark roses in the end.

Snow’s life is on the brink of collapse, doing his best to grasp onto his family’s former glory. He becomes the mentor to a District 12 tribute, one of the more ‘loser’-type districts (along with some foreshadowing for Katniss in the future). His tribute, Lucy Gray, understands the need to perform for the television audience, the two forging a relationship which slowly grows into love. Meanwhile, Snow’s idea of giving odds on surviving tributes raises his rank among the powers that be.

What is it about pitting people against one another that incites so much (*ahem*) hunger for blood within humanity? Perhaps violence is encoded deep within our DNA. It’s always been there – the Colosseum in Rome enticed rabid fans, medieval England held public hangings and executions; today, we watch UFC fights. Extreme violence has a way to entertain the crowds while distracting them from their pitiful lives. In the same way the Hunger Games began, it showcased the strength of the tributes from the different districts, distracting the Capitol from seeing how horrid the lives of those in the districts were.

It’s strange how compassion is the key to the Hunger Games. How connected all the people watching have to be in order to make these grotesque games a success. When people are both emotionally and theatrically invested in the tributes, they can potentially change the outcome of the winner – and their own fortunes. In a way, it’s always been a popularity contest, right?

Collins’ attempts to recapture the magic (and no doubt revenue) from her Hunger Games series by revisiting the origins of Coriolanus Snow falls flat on its prequel face. The meandering tone of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes desperately wants fans and readers alike to sympathize with Snow, but offers little to earn the distinction. His actions are pure survival, ensuring he would rise to the top on the backs – and bodies – of his compatriots. In a way, he didn’t break, which would explain why he became president. However, it appears Collins cracked under the pressure to preserve the spirit of the original books with this deflated piece.

About the Author: Evelyn Wong