Review: A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Did you feel that tingle in your bones when you heard a new Hunger Games book was being released? I did – I was thrilled to bits! When a series and its characters leaves such an impression on you, it’s natural to think about them long after the last words are read.

When I heard that this book would be about President Snow’s youth, I was curious – who doesn’t like a good origin story? Especially when it’s a villain’s origin story – I’m always fascinated to learn how someone’s experiences in life lead them down various pathways to good or evil. This book should have been right up my alley. So let’s review it…

The first excerpt I read from the prequel reveals Snow as the new protagonist and says he is “..a teenager born to privilege but searching for something more, a far cry from the man we know he will become. Here, he’s friendly. He’s charming. And, for now anyway, he’s a hero.”

That’s a lie.

Coriolanus Snow is an unlikable character, right from the get-go. Self-absorbed, arrogant and entitled, with only the occasional glimpse of empathy and emotional intelligence – I spent a lot of the book with eyebrows raised. His tribute charge, Lucy Gray (named after William Wordsworth’s ballad, I assume?) manages to appear vapid and manipulative all at once. Her relationship with Snow felt forced, and I found it hard to trust her intentions throughout the story. Of course, being in Snow’s head throughout the book made his intentions clear so overall it just felt like this ‘relationship’ was two people using each other for their own advantages, thus rendering the whole thing a sham.

This was the same for other relationships Snow had throughout this book. Even his ‘brother’ Sejanus fell victim to Snow’s own self-interest over loyalty.  Boo Snow! (But really, we all knew we’d hate him eventually right?)

The story itself seemed to meander at first – a lot of world building and Panem history which was interesting, but a lot of it felt like ‘filler’ and it made the story feel a little stagnant in places. The recounting of the 10th Hunger Games itself wasn’t particularly riveting either, but that could be the fact that as a reader I was used to a far more technologically-advanced Games as seen in the original stories. This was more of a ‘gladiators in the arena’ than force fields and laser beam style Games. Gritty, simple. I feel like it should have been a more brutal read, but instead it felt like a lot of people hiding in tunnels and not a lot of action.

The central theme of the story is about these two opposing world views; that of the cruel Gamemaster, Dr Gaul (“What happened in the arena? That’s humanity undressed. … That’s mankind in its natural state”) and Lucy Gray’s firm belief that there is “… a natural goodness built into human beings”. The debate that follows matters, because it determines how Panem should be governed – by tyranny or with kindness for all that live in the Capitol and its Districts. Snow seems to have fleeting moments of interest in being empathetic throughout the book, but we know what side of the fence he eventually sat on, and although I’m a big fan of pondering The Big Questions from time to time, we know from the first trilogy that humans can be both cruel and compassionate.

I must admit, I really liked seeing the threads woven in this story that show the evolution of the Games (and the overall story) over time – the introduction of tribute gifts, the beginning of Tigris’ backstory, Snow’s dislike of Mockingjays even at this early age, the origin of the Hanging Tree song among others – but overall I felt the pace of the story combined with the unlikable nature of Snow made it a little disappointing.

I’m assuming we’ll get a movie out of this, and perhaps further books. I’d still love to see what happens in Panem post-Mockingjay, but for now we’re here with this book, and unfortunately at this stage I don’t think it has added much value to the overall story.