A Piece in Their Games: A Review Of "The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes"

By: Raizy Neuman  |  August 30, 2020
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By Raizy Neuman, Website Manager

“The Hunger Games” is a series that will forever go unmatched. In 2008, Suzanne Collins, author of “The Hunger Games,” ushered in a wildly successful era of dystopian YA literature. We have her to thank for pop culture icons like the three-fingered gesture of solidarity as well as the classic line “I volunteer as tribute!” Though I consider myself an avid fan, I did not see a prequel coming. I figured we were done with new Katniss content, but I turned out to be wrong. Well, half wrong. 

“The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” isn’t directly about Katniss at all. It’s about the future President of Panem, Coriolanus Snow, 64 years before Katniss and Peeta held out their handfuls of poisonous berries. Collins takes us through pivotal years of the future president’s life, centered around the 10th Hunger Games. Along the way, Collins throws in nuggets of how the Hunger Games came to be the Capitol-celebrated establishment that we came to know through Katniss’s eyes. We learn about the true creator of the Games and how Coriolanus and his classmates affected its future rules and requirements. 

After reading “The Ballad of Songbird and Snakes,” I couldn’t resist rereading the original series. I was thoroughly impressed by many of the slight continuity details that Collins worked into the prequel, and I now appreciate her so much more as a writer.  

As I grow older (and hopefully wiser), and as our contemporary world moves in a frightening direction, I see how real the fiction of “The Hunger Games” is. The reasoning behind the Games, as we learn from the prequel, began with people who genuinely believed that it was for the betterment of society. Collins’ series is a painful and terrifying reminder of the world that ours could become if we aren’t vigilant enough.

Whether it be to create conspiracy theories, such as who in the prequel, if anyone, Katniss descends from (spoiler alert: I’m on the Maude Ivory train), or to just discuss the revelations and subtle realizations gained from reading it, I’d argue that Collins’ largest success with this installment is that she got people thinking. Personally, I was researching “BookTube” (the side of YouTube that does what the name implies) reviews for quite a while after turning the final page. Even now, months after reading the novel, I still find myself occasionally wandering upon “Ballad” threads. (I mean, seriously, Tigris the cat lady was his cousin?!)

The prequel wasn’t 100% well-received. Many reviews called it lackluster, boring, and much too long, especially in comparison with the original trilogy. I have to disagree; I found the slower pace of the book refreshing and its information and overarching ideas fascinating. Honestly, I wish it had been longer. It certainly was different than the original, as it focused significantly more on character and societal development, and significantly less on bloody action. For readers looking for a thrill ride of violence and competition, this book may not be up to their standards. For readers looking for an intellectual thrill ride, though, I’d say look no further than “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.” 

One aspect that I and many “Hunger Games” fans worried about upon hearing the news of this prequel was an issue that shows like “Wicked” and movies like “Maleficent” have tackled: villain sympathy. Coriolanus Snow did despicable things in the “Hunger Games” series, and I was not interested in excuses. However, what Collins gave us was so much better. She gave us a book that explained Snow’s character arc and a true, deep understanding of his personality and reasoning — without excusing any of it. As a reader, I gained insight into the importance of guarding oneself against one’s own rationality and the need to step outside oneself. Snow failed to do that, and Collins gave us the opportunity to learn from it.

I can only hope that Collins writes more prequels in the future, perhaps about characters like Haymitch Abernathy, Johanna Mason, or even District 13 President Alma Coin. I hope also that her literature continues to grow up with its readers, and that as us original teenage readers of “The Hunger Games” age, the sophistication of her writing continues to develop. “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” taught me that, while one’s actions are what they are, the thought and rationale behind them make them significantly deeper. Being a member of the audience as the “Hunger Games” trilogy unfolded was a wild ride, but gaining from the development of its contributing characters is invaluable. 

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