The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Please note that this review may contain spoilers for earlier instalments of this series. You can read my reviews of these novels here:

The Hunger Games | Catching Fire | Mockingjay

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was written by Suzanne Collins and first published in 2020. It is a prequel to the popular The Hunger Games Trilogy and focuses on a young Coriolanus Snow as he mentors a tribute in the 10th Annual Hunger Games. Although it is set 64 years before the original trilogy, I would strongly recommend reading The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009) and Mockingjay (2010) first to fully appreciate what is going on.

Coriolanus Snow is the heir of the Snow family, but since the war his family have sunk into poverty. In order to provide for his Grandmother and cousin, Tigris, he needs to win a grant to study at the Capitol’s university. Failure to do so will mean that they will certainly lose their apartment. Luckily, an opportunity has arisen. Coriolanus has been selected to mentor the District 12 tribute in the upcoming Hunger Games. If he makes a good impression, he will certainly secure the funding that he needs.

While Coriolanus does not expect that his tribute, Lucy Gray Baird, will win the games, he is pleased when her talent for singing makes her a star in the Capitol. Desperately, he seeks a way to use this to his advantage and come out on top with popularity alone. However, as Coriolanus spends more time with Lucy Gray, he comes to realise that he actually wants to her to win. Although Lucy Gray does not look like much when compared to some of the stronger tributes, he begins to plan a strategy that will allow her to defeat them by any means necessary.

Yet his victory will not be easy. Hampered by the psychotic Gamesmaster and his association with Sejanus Plinth, a classmate who is oddly sympathetic with the Districts, Coriolanus must use all of his wits and cunning to succeed. If he cannot win a place at University, how will he ever succeed in his ambition of one day ruling Panem…

Wow. I certainly was not expecting to be returning to this series again! While I did actually really enjoy reading The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, it is still an incredibly difficult novel to review. The Hunger Games Trilogy featured fast-paced violence and a strong female protagonist, but this prequel is an animal of a different kind. Coriolanus Snow is an very different character to Katniss Everdeen and the whole feel of this book certainly reflects that. The pacing this time is far slower, taking the time to focus on the world-building and philosophy that would eventually shape Coriolanus into the tyrannical president of Panem.

The world-building of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is utterly captivating. The story is set 64 years before the events of The Hunger Games and only 10 years after the war. Due to this, we see the Capitol in a very different light. The city is still war-torn and rife with poverty; a far cry from the Utopian decadence that we see in The Hunger Games. The Games themselves have been running since the war ended but are a primal shade of what they will later become and the populous at large seem uninterested by them. Everyone bears scars of conflict, and would sooner forget what happened than be reminded by an annual murder-thon.

Personally, I found this to be fascinating. It is difficult to imagine Panem in such a state and it did truly surprise me that the Hunger Games were originally so unengaging, containing none of the pomp and glamour that they would later receive. Over the early novel, Coriolanus attended many study groups in which he and his classmates brainstormed what would make the games “better”. It was really interesting to see their ideas start to slowly shape the Hunger Games, introducing concepts such as sponsors and betting to the proceedings.

And yet, I did sometimes think that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was a bit too heavy-handed with its call-backs. While I liked some of the minor nods, such as the Games being presented by a different Flickerman, others were far less subtle. This became particularly apparent in the final section of the novel, in which Coriolanus witnesses the origin of The Hanging Tree song and gains an irrational hatred of Mockingjays. This was certainly a little too on-the-nose for my liking.

In terms of pacing, I do think that this book has the potential to divide fans. Due to its focus on Coriolanus, it is nowhere near as fast-paced as the previous books in this series. After all, Coriolanus is a stage removed from proceedings. He is not in the area fighting off blood-thirsty tributes – he is watching from the safety of the mentors’ box. What this did give the time for was more of a character study. We follow Coriolanus in his daily life within the Capitol, attending school and mentoring Lucy Gray. This allowed readers to see Panem from the other side – a world that is far different from the impoverished life of Katniss Everdeen.

Yet, at times, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes could be incredibly slow. While I was utterly captivated by the first two-thirds of the novel, the section after the climax of the 10th Hunger Games did start to lose me a little. Coriolanus’s time in District 12 was surprisingly uneventful for the most part. While things did pick up again over the last 40 pages, it all felt to be a bit of a come-down after the excitement of the Games.

In terms of character, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was also perhaps a little varied. As a character study of Coriolanus Snow, it was spectacular. Coriolanus is a fantastically complex character. His impoverished upbringing and desire to protect his family could have made him incredibly sympathetic, but this was offset by his ambition and underlying nationalism. Even at his most vulnerable, there was always a sense that Coriolanus would do anything to come out on top, which prevented him from ever being truly likeable. As a villain origin story, I would say that this was incredibly effective. You could certainly understand Coriolanus, but you could never like him.

Yet, while there was a large supporting cast, most of these characters quickly faded into the background and few were as colourful or memorable as those in the original trilogy. The only two that really shone were Lucy Gray Baird and Sejanus Plinth. Lucy Gray made a compelling love-interest for Coriolanus, and was refreshingly different from Katniss despite their similar upbringings. While her motivations were occasionally a little hard to grasp, she was very lovable and served as a representation of how different Coriolanus’s life could be.

Sejanus was also a brilliant character as he represented new money, being born from a District family who had bough their way into the Capitol. Due to this, he found that he was equally hated in both worlds. Although his naivety grew more and more frustrating as the story progressed, the situation that he was in was terribly sad and held up a mirror to that of Coriolanus. Here was a person who had received a similar education and chance at a future, but his upbringing allowed him to see the world in a very different light.

I think that about covers everything. I really enjoyed reading The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Although it could be very slow in places, I found it to be a wonderful character study that added a lot of depth to Coriolanus Snow. It is definitely a novel that I would recommend.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes can be purchased as a Hardback, eBook & Audio Book from Amazon.co.uk

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