Book Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes


Rachel Tian, Writer

One arena. Twenty-four tributes. Hundreds of years into the future. The country of Panem, a futuristic totalitarian regime under which the elite, wealthy Capitol controls what is left of North America after a series of disasters, is subject to eternal war. The nation consists of twelve districts that challenged the corrupt government in an unsuccessful rebellion. To punish these districts for their behavior, and to remind them of their inferiority, Panem establishes “The Hunger Games,” a televised reality show in which two teenage tributes from each district are sent to a Capitol arena every year to fight to the death, until one lone victor stands.

The original trilogy of The Hunger Games was narrated by the independent, brilliant, and selfless protagonist Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen-year-old archer from District 12, who volunteers to take her sister’s place in the 74th Hunger Games. With a mind of her own and an admirable strength in survival techniques, it was impossible not to root for Katniss throughout the entire series. She never wanted too much money, never lusted for men, and never intended to be the centerpiece of attention in a setting. Her compassion for her loved ones and heroic ideas challenged Panem’s government, and she fought with all her might for what she believed was best for the country. A perfect representation of an altruistic feminist, one could say.

However, Suzanne Collins’ recent addition to the trilogy provides a new point of view. Intended as a prequel and backstory to Katniss’ Hunger Games tale, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes introduces an interestingly chilling perspective. Juxtaposing against the female heroine of the first three novels, the new main character is the villain of the original series. Coriolanus Snow, the evil dictator of Panem during Katniss’ Hunger Games, is given an in-depth origin story. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes touches on the events that occurred sixty-four years prior, when the Hunger Games was a despicable idea still evolving in the Capitol, only at its 10th anniversary, and the future president was only an eighteen-year-old Academy graduate. 

Unlike Katniss, Coriolanus’ role as the protagonist does not bring about sympathy or love. In fact, it takes the audience deeper into his twisted mind, letting people understand how brainwashed he is as a Capitol child. Snow’s job is to mentor a female tribute from District 12 named Lucy Gray Baird in the Games. He must give her his advice, train her in combat and other survival techniques, and basically bring her up to be a Capitol favorite in the arena. However, there is no selfless nature in him, as he does not want to keep the tribute alive for the sake of saving a human life. Instead, if she is crowned victor, he gets a shower of congratulations and a full-ride to University. What dangerous sacrifices is he willing to make in order to reach his goal? Some actions may appear forgiving, yet his every step and motivation are ridiculously calculated. 

The lack of a “down-to-earth” protagonist and the actual experience of being in the arena makes this novel less of an action-packed romantic tale, but more of an insight into the details behind a corrupt government. Omitting the original excitement of brutal challenges in the actual Games from the first three novels, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is not particularly fast-paced and gives the audience more time to ponder on the decisions of a corrupt government. The novel reveals what is behind the veil of terror and how it evolves to be as unthinkable as it is presented in Katniss’ world. What exactly, does it take to make a person so heartless, so hungry for power? And was Snow always this cruel? Maybe not. Maybe, at some point, he truly felt pity for Lucy Gray. 

Perhaps it is strange on Collins’ part to cut out the customary elements that make young adults invested in a science fiction novel, but the villainous viewpoint of President Snow is surprisingly refreshing, reminding everyone that different people have their own reasons behind their actions. Coriolanus Snow meets plenty of characters from the districts that resemble the innocent, realistic, and favorable nature of typical protagonists, yet none are able to truly sway his ruthless nature. 

This additional prequel to the New York Times bestselling trilogy opens the door to audiences who were fans of the original series, giving a clearer, more precise description of the history of Panem. Although I felt less personally connected with the main character, and the story was less adventurous than Collins’ other novels, I still highly recommend this read. It is impossible to ignore the details implemented into every decision in the novel, and reading about the heartbreaks, lies, and unforgivable consequences in Coriolanus Snow’s life brings a newfound appreciation for Suzanne Collins’ ideology. And of course, don’t you want to learn the mystery behind such an obscure book title?