Book Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

The most precious gift 2020 has given me – perhaps apart from extra time spent at home with my family – is the opportunity to relive my days as a fangirl. And no, I’m not just referring to my life-long fascination with Star Wars, but the teenage years I spent in solemn devotion to The Hunger Games trilogy.

I pre-ordered my beautiful hardback copy of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes the minute I saw it advertised as a prequel to my beloved series, and whipped out my Amazon password even faster when I read the blurb about 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow – unconvinced even Collins’s writing could make me care about the evil president of Panem who caused Katniss Everdeen so much pain and torment. My copy arrived, bound in green and gold, illuminated under the sun that poured in through my windows, begging for the opportunity to be proven wrong.

The first page, describing a hunger-driven Coriolanus making cabbage soup, made my stomach growl. Lucy Gray, the musically-talented tribute from District 12 Coriolanus is assigned to mentor, quickly earned my support. I was cheering for the pair by nightfall. I knew Snow would “land on top,” as he says in the novel, but there were times that seemed so impossible that his victory became more luck-driven, skin-of-his-teeth than I’d ever assumed.

Collins makes Coriolanus a sympathetic character – which we could all see coming. You can’t really write a successful novel if your protagonist isn’t relatable (look at the John Cleaver series, for example.) Perhaps it is just my tendency to hearken back to Star Wars at any given moment, but the character of Coriolanus directly parallels Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. Before he becomes this despotic, genocidal ruler, he’s just a young boy: downtrodden, smart, and in love. Songbirds and Snakes does the job of a proper prequel by expanding our knowledge of the world, providing a compelling, character-deepening backstory, and reexamining the questions brought up in the original text: you may win, but at what cost?

What Collins does not do – and rightly so – is follow the plot pattern of the original trilogy. Coriolanus and Lucy Gray do not mirror Katniss and Peeta; Panem is a very different place at this time; and even the Hunger Games themselves are in the early, rocky stages of development. You almost say to yourself, “the victors of the 74th annual Hunger Games were spoiled” after seeing what the tributes of the 10th are subjected to. In the original trilogy, they are second-class citizens; in Songbirds and Snakes, they are animals.

And the girl assigned to student mentor Snow is a songbird with a full-fledged repertoire, decked in rainbow ruffles. The folksy, twangy melodies she sings include originals, classics such as “Oh, My Darling, Clementine,” and “Keep on the Sunny Side,” and Katniss’s favorites: “Deep in the Meadow” and “The Hanging Tree.” For her tribute interview before the Games, Lucy Gray strums a guitar and sings a ballad about an old love:

“‘Cause I am the one who looks out when you’re leaping. I am the one who knows how you were brave. And I am the one who heard what you said sleeping. I’ll take that and more when I go to my grave.”

“And I am the one who you let see you weeping. I know the soul that you struggle to save. Too bad I’m the bet that you lost in the reaping. Now what will you do when I go to my grave?” (pg. 171)

So it isn’t only Coriolanus’ transformation, or the heavily gory imagery that adds a distinguishing, more adult air – the songs, abundant throughout, separate the prequel from The Hunger Games with a flourish of originality and ingenuity. The lyrics are so compelling and beautifully-written that the sensation is closer to hearing than reading. I would try to attach them to a few chords on my guitar, as Lucy Gray did, but certainly only a professional will be able to shoulder the task of creating music worthy of Collins’s poetry. And someone will; Lionsgate has the film rights and will eventually release a movie version.

Once again, Collins proves to be an adept, innovative, and expressive author – producing plenty of fear in her storytelling, but stretching the window just enough to include a spark of hope.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *