What’s new, readers? Today is the first day of June, which means summer is on the horizon—and you know what, I couldn’t care less. Things have been so exasperating lately, not just because of the dimwits out there who see fit to dismiss the necessity of face masks, but also because of the police-inflicted murder of George Floyd, the maximum Karen-ness of Amy Cooper, and in general the poisonous prejudices that have been festering in our country for so long. You know what Trump cares about, though? Lashing out at Twitter because they’re tagging his tweets, and threatening to dispatch the U.S. military against the protesters and looters. It’s a very frustrating and stressful period right now, and I hope everyone realizes that we need to take a social inventory of our country and engage in detoxing from the insidious and systemic sickness of racism. And yes, that involves voting for Joe Biden in the coming election and kicking Trump out of the White House.
All right, that’s my brief rant on the state of our country. Now, if you’re hungry for YA dystopian literature (sorry, couldn’t resist), you’re in the right place. I recall being faintly aware of The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins before the first movie came out in March of 2012, although I wasn’t interested in it back then—not even when Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth came to my hometown of Seattle for a meet-and-greet at the University Village Microsoft store. Needless to say, I regret skipping that. But hey, hindsight’s 20/20.
Fast-forward to the end of 2019, at which point I finally decided to check out the series and found myself getting immersed in the terrifying and multifaceted landscape of Panem, where bow-and-arrow-wielding survivalist Katniss Everdeen defies the monstrous sadism of President Coriolanus Snow and the relentless brutality of the Hunger Games. The trilogy is a coming-of-age tale first and foremost—an emotionally vivid allegory consisting of teenagers who have to contend with the rigors of adolescence and the corrupting autocracy of adults. It’s also a satire on the sensational way in which reality shows like Survivor or Love Island fascinate us, the sheer gluttony and wasteful decadence of the wealthy and the few, and the political manipulation and deception that heavily alludes to George Orwell’s 1984. Readers can spend plenty of time examining the politics of the trilogy, especially when it comes to the parallels that can be drawn between the propaganda tactics in the third entry in the series, Mockingjay, and the Bush administration’s approach to the War on Terror.
Now Collins is bringing us back to the series with an ambitious prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. The Capitol is preparing for the tenth annual Hunger Games. In an effort to boost the TV event’s viewership (surprise, people don’t find it entertaining to watch kids fight to the death), they assign students from the Academy, a high school for descendants of the Capitol’s upper-crust families, to mentor twenty-four tributes that will be reaped from all twelve districts of the country for the Games. One of those mentors is eighteen-year-old Coriolanus “Coryo” Snow, who gets paired with the female tribute from impoverished District 12: Lucy Gray Baird, a gutsy singer whose pizzazz quickly enraptures her audience.
Like many fans of The Hunger Games, I was skeptical about this. Putting a rich white guy at the forefront appeared to contradict the core values of the series, and the prospect of exploring Snow’s villain backstory, as though it’s supposed to justify his appalling actions as president, felt equally inappropriate. Fortunately, this prequel succeeds largely because Collins demonstrates such a great feel for her chillingly absorbing antihero. The brisk prose and social commentary on privilege and the prevalent influence of the media don’t hurt, either. In contrast to The Hunger Games, which told the tale of teenagers dealing with the disciplinarian surveillance doled out by authority figures, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes builds itself on the question of nature versus nurture—a subject that the epigraph touches on with quotes from philosophers and writers including Thomas Hobbes and Mary Shelley. Did the hardships in Coriolanus’s youth contribute meaningfully to the twists and turns of his arc, or was he destined to become the despotic abomination who reeked of roses and blood?
Upon starting the book, the reader learns that Coriolanus, his cousin Tigris, and his grandmother are barely getting by in the Capitol. The Snow family fortune was based in munitions in District 13, which got nuked during the Dark Days, an unsuccessful revolt that the districts launched against the Capitol a decade ago. Coriolanus is still traumatized both by the constant bombings that the districts inflicted on his home and the famine caused by the rebels who obstructed food supplies in an attempt to starve the Capitol into capitulation. He’ll never shake off the memory of witnessing the neighbor who was so desperate for food that he resorted to lopping the leg off a dead body in the street. Shaped by “the endless dance with hunger,” Coriolanus is determined to outwit his adversaries at every possible opportunity, graduate to the University, and restore his once-esteemed family name (“Snow lands on top” is a motto he often exchanges with Tigris).
Does that mean we’re supposed to sympathize with this scheming, self-important blue blood who grows up to become a sociopathic dictator? Honestly, I don’t think that’s what Collins is asking from us. Again, she’s examining nature versus nurture in the form of an engaging character study that’s been packaged in a YA post-apocalyptic setting. That doesn’t mean we can’t empathize with him on some level through his grudges, insecurities, and ethical quandaries—traits that humanize his character and factor into the numerous decisions he makes over the course of his arc. It’s unique that we’re even getting a chance to follow a villain backstory in YA fiction, especially since nobody was on Team Snow begging Collins for this prequel. While he relies on his cunning quite often and isn’t above exploiting others in his circle to advance his own agenda, there are also instances where he might actually be acting out of compassion and generosity. His ambivalent friendship with Sejanus Plinth, a fellow mentor and the son of a munitions mogul from District 2, is one example. Another is his alliance with Lucy Gray. Mentoring her to victory in the Games would stake him to an education at the University, but the feelings he starts to have for her could be as significant of a motive for him as his concern about his social status. It seems deliberate that the author leaves this up to her audience for their interpretation.
Collins elucidates not only Coriolanus’s origins but also some of the history of Panem. For example, we learn how some of the signature elements of the Hunger Games—appointing mentors, televising interviews with the tributes, delivering food into the arena by drone—were established in the tenth Games, sixty-four years before the events of the trilogy. This is the year when the Capitol starts learning how to employ reality TV gloss to gussy up the savage event’s image, with help from brass like Dr. Volumnia Gaul, the deranged Head Gamemaker who runs experiments on her grotesque muttations, and Dean Casca Highbottom, the architect of the Games who Coriolanus nicknames “High-as-a-Kite-Bottom” because of his morphling addiction. The changes they make to the Games correlate disturbingly with how reality shows in our world shake up their own rules to attract bigger audiences.
Devoted readers will love breaking down the profusion of Easter eggs and symbology in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. At the same time they may struggle with the pacing, which doesn’t match up to the exhilarating action of the trilogy. Coriolanus’s constant political artifices and the book’s tendency to overly indulge in its own philosophy can get tedious as well. Once the plot progresses into the third act, though, his character arc develops towards a climax that pays off in spades and ends things on a thematically resonant note. All in all, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a strong return to the dystopia that Collins crafted, and it should be a huge nostalgia boost for longtime fans.
I’m very interested in how the film adaptation will turn out. It will be directed by Francis Lawrence, who previously helmed the adaptations of Catching Fire and Parts 1 and 2 of Mockingjay. Without a doubt it will bring in mountains of cash at the box office. Whether it’s going to be any better than your typical YA SF dystopian blockbuster franchise (holy crap, what a mouthful) will depend on two things—Lawrence being able to properly translate the source material to the big screen, and casting the perfect actor to embody young Coriolanus Snow.
All my love and prayers go to you, readers. Stay healthy, stay strong, wear a face mask, and may the odds be ever in your favor.
Windup score: 92/100