There’s little doubt that Suzanne Collins is a terrific writer, but does the prequel stand up to the original trilogy? And how is it as a stand along novel?
The Hunger Games
Just in case you’ve been LIVING UNDER A ROCK, here’s what the Hunger Games is all about. The country of Panem was raged by a war – the Capitol vs. the Rebels. Ultimately, the Capitol won the war and Panem’s 12 districts (number 13 being destroyed in the war) were punished for their part in the rebellion by the installation of the Hunger Games. Each year a girl and a boy from each district to take part in a winner-takes-all game: kill or be killed. The winner gets money and glory, the losers die at the hands of the other tributes. In the original three books the heroine is Katniss Everdeen from District Twelve and her male counterpart is Peeta. The president during this time is President Coriolanus Snow.
The Plot in a Nutshell (Spoiler Free)
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes follows Coriolanus Snow during his eighteenth year and the tenth hunger games.
As a student at the ‘Academy’ Coriolanus is tasked with becoming a mentor to one of the 24 contestants in the Hunger Games. To his dismay, Coriolanus lands the district twelve girl, Lucy Gray.
Coriolanus desperately needs to do well in the Games – his family have been left destitute from the war and both his parents are gone. He and his cousin, Tigris, live day to day, while taking care of their Grandmother. His tribute winning the games would mean a free ride to university, something Coriolanus needs.
Lucy Gray is a singer and songwriter who is part of the “convey”, a district-less roaming band of musicians. However, they were rounded up and made to live in district twelve. This meant that sixteen-year-old Lucy was subject to the reaping and becomes twelve’s female tribute.
Lucy makes a splash at the reaping with a song and a snake attack, and Coriolanus begins to think his tribute might be in with a chance.
Along with a host of side characters, including Sejanus, a classmate of Coriolanus who is morally torn up about having to take part in the Games, Collins shows you inside Panem in the aftermath of the war and what the games were like over sixty years before Katniss and Peeta’s Games.
SPOILER WARNING: Review contains mild spoilers, but I don’t give away the ending or anything mad.
Collins breaks the novel into three parts: The Mentor, The Prize and The Peacekeeper. Collins has (in some places) been criticised for the length, but I love a long novel. Perhaps each part could have been a stand-alone book, but Collins isn’t trying to create a new trilogy here, she’s creating a history.
I already knew that Snow would be the main character and I was fascinated to see how Collins would take a character who is the “villain” in the Hunger Games and make him the primary voice. I found myself gunning for Coryo (as his cousin Tigris calls him). It was interesting to see him as poor, scrimping and scraping to even eat. His voice is fantastic and you can see the inner turmoil going on inside him. As the novel progresses Coryo has to deal with conflict: should he betray his friends, should he be with Lucy Gray, should he kill someone, should he feel bad? During the third part you can really feel the tension rising and how he’s heading down a path that will lead to him being the President Snow we all know.
You’re also introduced to Lucy Gray, the tribute. We know (from the Hunger Games) that there is only one victor from District Twelve (Haymitch), so I wondered for most of the book if Lucy Gray was going to die and if she did maybe this is what tips Coryo over the edge? It keeps you tense, especially as a romance between the two seems to be blooming. The romance I didn’t really believe, as Coryo says himself, they are from different worlds and the controlling Capitol would never allow them to be together. But maybe that’s the point Collins was trying to make? I enjoyed the call-backs to the Hunger Games with the songs Lucy sings, particularly the Hanging Tree. I also thought that it was a nice touch that she was part of a travelling musical group, it added to the full-ness of the world, that there were people out there that tried to not conform to the restrictions set in place. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of songs in books, but that’s a personal thing and it didn’t impact me too much. (Interestingly, my boyfriend said the same thing – let me know down in the comments how you feel about songs IN books.)
I really liked Sejamus. I had been wondering if, at the start of the Games, anyone had questioned it – and he represented that. He ended up being my favourite character. Sejamus is a rich kid who used to live in District Two but ends up in the Capitol with Coryo. He is someone who has so much conflict about the Games, but also doesn’t think before he acts, he represents someone who does what they feel they should do, rather than what is safe.
Two other important characters are Dean Highbottom and Dr. Gaul. Highbottom is the Dean of the Academy and also the creator of the Games; I loved this because I had always wondered how this came about and the revelation is fantastic. Dr. Gaul is the sadistic game-maker of the tenth games and there’s a lot of history there too, with Mockingjays especially – again, another great call-back.
Collins also has an amazing ability to world-build. We see the Capital not as this shiny utopia but as a post-war city. There are so many tiny features that made it full and rounded. In short, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a history, it’s the perfect book for Hunger Games fans who have been craving more or who (like me) are massive nerds and have wanted the background for years. There’s also some great gore and spine-chilling moments.
My only criticism is that, for those who aren’t huge Hunger Games fans, a lot will be lost. BUT, I am a big believer in books being read in the order that the author intended them to be read. For example, you wouldn’t read The Magician’s Nephew before The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. In fact, that’s a great comparison – The Magician’s Nephew adds to the world of Narnia if you’ve read the other books, but not before. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes isn’t AS good as the original trilogy, but it’s beautiful writing and a rich story.
Overall, I loved The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and I can’t wait to see what else Collins has in store, whether it’s from Panem or not.