Goodreads: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Series: Hunger Games #0
Published: May 2020
The house of Snow is falling. Eighteen-year-old Coriolanus needs to win a Prize to University, or he will not be able to attend at all– and then his family’s legacy will be over. His one chance to prove his worth is as a mentor in the 10th Hunger Games. But then he is assigned the girl from District 12. Lucy Gray Baird knows how to put on a show, but Coriolanus is not convinced she has the strength necessary to win the Games. For now, however, their fates are intertwined. If Snow hopes to restore glory to his family name, he needs Lucy to put on the best show of her life.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a strong return to the world of the Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins takes readers to the Capitol, where teens like Coriolanus Snow and his classmates are still struggling with their memories of the late war, and what the war means to Panem. As the Hunger Games mark their 10th anniversary, the residents of the Capitol debate the legacy of the Games and their necessity. At the heart of the debate lie two different philosophies about the nature of humankind; Coriolanus is caught between these dueling perspectives. His choice will determine his future. Collins brings her signature insight to The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a thrilling story that will also challenge readers to consider their own values.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is heavily indebted to the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as Collins acknowledges in a Q&A in the readers’ guide. (I have the Barnes and Noble special edition; I am not sure if this interview is available in all copies.) Essentially, those in favor of the Games espouse a worldview closer to that of Hobbes, believing that humans are violent by nature and so must be controlled by government forces. Those who question the Games lean towards Locke’s philosophy, believing that people are good by nature, but corrupted by bad government. Rousseau’s influence is perhaps less well-defined in the novel, but Collins states that it can be seen in the Covey, who are also influenced by the Romantics. The interplay of each character’s beliefs is what drives the story.
To be clear, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is not an apology for Snow’s later role as a dictator, nor is it an attempt to excuse anything he does in the original trilogy. Rather, it is a nuanced look at how outside and inner forces combine to form Snow and his beliefs. Snow is, in this book, arguably somewhat likeable. Readers might identify with his insecurities in school and his worries about money and the future. They will see that he does have good qualities, ones his friend Sejanus and his tribute Lucy Gray strive to bring to the front. Still, Coriolanus also remains distant, calculating, vain, and arrogant. The question is: might his finer qualities have prevailed, had he not grown up in a society that prizes all his qualities that are bad?
Collins does not dump all the blame for Coriolanus’s rise to power on the Capitol, even though the Capitol clearly nurtures Snow’s desire for control at any cost, as well as his prejudice for anyone born in the Districts. Snow’s cousin Tigris, for example, is Capitol-born and raised, yet she still pities the tributes in the Hunger Games and she consistently chooses kindness over her own survival or security. In this way, she is different from both Snow and Lucy. And she demonstrates that one’s society or upbringing does not have to determine their values.
Snow and Lucy interestingly end up being sort of complementary images to each other, both of them experiencing strain between what they might like to do and what they need to do in order to come out on top. One might think that the book could draw an easy dichotomy between them: Capitol=bad and District=good. However, just like Katniss in the original trilogy, Lucy often has to choose to be ruthless in order to survive. She is, as Snow comes to realize, no innocent. Lucy believes that her inherent goodness has been taken from her by the Capitol. Snow’s response to that is the defining point of the novel. Are people really good? Or are they actually really bad? Does the Capitol need to control that badness to prevent anything like the late war from ever happening again?
The philosophical underpinnings of the Hunger Games books are arguably what make them so unique, as well as provocative–the reason people are still reading them over ten years after their first publication. However, readers just wanting to know more about the origins of the Hunger Games will find themselves satisfied by The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, as will those hoping for a riveting story full of drama. In short: fans of the Hunger Games will find themselves satisfied by this prequel.