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A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

When a Prequel Does its Best- A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Potential spoilers. You have been warned.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is set sixty-five years before the original trilogy, during the tenth Hunger Games, and centers around everyone’s least favourite president (okay, maybe second least favourite). This is the story of President Snow when he was just Coriolanus. 

Now I know what you’re thinking- “Who wants to read a book about President Snow?”, and I will admit that I was pretty skeptical when I started it. But you know what, as a standalone novel, A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is pretty good. As a prequel, it doesn’t quite meet the standard set by the Hunger Games. But… the standard is really high, so let’s forgive that. 

I started out with one question- How is Suzanne Collins going to make Snow a sympathetic character? The short answer- she doesn’t. She offers no justification; she makes no excuses. Snow was vile in the Hunger Games and he is vile now. What she does do is tell you where he came from; where the games came from. 

Set ten years after the Dark Days (which, I think, would make an excellent prequel, someone get Collins on the phone), the book is about Snow, but it’s also about the Capitol. The Capitol you see in the original trilogy is, primarily a place of ignorance where the citizens are so removed from the districts, that the very idea of want, something that Twelve is altogether too well acquainted with, is entirely inconceivable. But ten years after the war, it’s a much crueler place, where retribution is foremost in the minds of the citizens. In its early years, most of the Capitol is consumed by the need for punishment. And the most extreme form of punishment is brought to them, gift wrapped, as the Hunger Games. But, as eager as they are for punishment, most of the Capitol is pretty squeamish about the Games.    

The Games in the original trilogy are the epitome of excess. Glamour to mask the horror. But they weren’t always that way. In A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, (which, by the way, is a very literal title) the games do not try to hide their true nature. No one is trying to draw in volunteers, winning brings nothing. The 10th Hunger Games is not entertainment; no more than a public execution would be. And no one in the Capitol really wants to watch it. I suppose it’s harder to ignore the reality of killing children when it’s not dressed up in sequins and glitter. Everything that Katniss would associate the Games with came much later, as a way to get people interested. The interviews, the sponsors, the Victors Village all there so the people of the Capitol would get invested in the great big show. Because what’s the point of a public execution if no one is going to watch it? And at the center of it all is Snow. 

In one of the Capitols first attempts to garner interest in the Games, mentors are assigned to tributes. Of course these aren’t the Victors of previous years. Instead they pick students from the Capitol, and Snow is given the girl tribute from District Twelve. Lucy Gray. She’s a singer and survivor and she’ll do whatever it takes to win the Hunger Games(At first, I thought that this was a character that both Katniss and Peeta would look up to. By the end though, I wasn’t so sure) And here begins Snow’s connection with Twelve. As it turns out, President Snow doesn’t hate Mockingjays and District Twelve because of Katniss. It’s more likely the other way around. And ‘The Hanging Tree’, the song Katniss sings in Mockingjay, is far more significant for him than it is for her.

It is so easy to reconcile the President Snow that we all know and hate, with this version of him-Coriolanus, affectionately called Coryo by his cousin, Tigris. The same Tigris who later shelters Katniss because she wants Snow dead (wonder what he did to her?). Eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow has all the makings of the devious dictator that he is bound to become. He’s already completely without scruples, ready to do whatever it takes, to throw anyone under the bus to get to where he wants to go. He’s obsessed with the concept of control long before he’s in a position to exercise it. In a way the book actually makes him a more hateable character than he already was, because you see his beginnings. Unlike so many in the Capitol, he knows what poverty and hunger are like. He has been in the districts and has seen what life is like there. And still, he chooses to make it worse.  

Twelve is very different from the original trilogy. The beaten down, miserable version that Katniss lives in is still a long way off. The Hob is a place of life and music, not just a trade hub. There’s still a bit of rebellion in the people- a rebellion that’s a lot harder to stamp out. Katniss would probably feel right at home in the District 12 of a Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, in a way that she never did in her own District 12.

It’s a pretty philosophical book, and it paints a very gruesome picture of human nature. In the original trilogy, the Games were just another tool of oppression in the Capitol’s bloated arsenal, to keep the Districts down. But in A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes they serve another purpose- to prove that humans are inherently violent and need firm control to remain civilized, or so Dr. Gaul, the maniacal and frankly terrifying mastermind behind them would have you believe. It’s Hobbes’ Social Contract theory, brought to life in the goriest of ways. And that is the idea upon which the Capitol, in all its power, is built.

The Hunger Games are Dr. Gaul’s pet project, a way to prove that without the authoritarian control of the Capitol, Panem would collapse into barbarism. And what better way to do that, than taking a group of children, putting them in an arena with no rules (and no food!), and telling them that the only way they will survive is if they kill off all the others. “Look how they behave in survival situations. If you don’t accept the Capitol’s authority completely, and without any reservations, this is what will happen to you”. Deeply flawed reasoning of course, but what would you expect from a character who is the definition of a mad scientist.    

Where the Hunger Games trilogy was a story of survival and ending oppression, this is a story of complicity, even active participation in an evil system. So, if you’ve ever asked yourself the question- why is the Capitol like that? – this book is the answer.  

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