When news broke that there was going to be a prequel to Hunger Games, I was all over it. That is until I heard that the prequel was going to feature Coriolanus Snow. Then, my interest waned as I had no desire to read about the story’s villain. Except, I am not one to leave a series without reading all of the books, so this is how I found myself reading The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins.
I had no expectations going into The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. You see, I ignored all prerelease information as well as the synopsis before starting. The only bit of information I knew before opening the cover was the fact that Snow was the main character.
In many ways, because I started the story blind, I enjoyed The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes more than I expected I would. It will shock no one when I say that young Snow is not adult Snow. While I did not feel sympathy for him, I do recognize how traumatic the war between the Capitol and the districts was for him. I also recognize the immense pressure he feels to maintain the family honor and hide his poverty.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching Snow evolve into the person we know him to be. Like all good tyrants, Snow does not start out intending to be a despot. In fact, young Snow is naive and desperate to earn prize money so that he can attend University. This makes him simultaneously eager to please and easy to manipulate, which is exactly what happens.
The thing is, for all of Snow’s own experiences with hardship and deprivation, he remains at heart a snob. Even as he witnesses firsthand the poverty and utter lack of anything that the rest of Panem experiences, he fails to see similarities between his and their situations. If anything, his belief in his own superiority becomes more concrete. Once you add a mentor who considers mankind inherently evil, you begin to see not only where his paths diverge but also to understand how he decides upon the path he does.
Panem itself appears largely as it does in the subsequent novels with the exception of the Capitol and the Hunger Games themselves. Ten years after the war, and the Capitol still shows the ravages of that war. Scarcity remains for those without money, as does any property damage from the war, and we only catch glimpses of the crazy decadence the Capitol later becomes.
As for the Games, they are in their tenth iteration and initially look nothing like the Games Katniss and Peeta enter. There is no fancy arena designed specifically for the Games, no sponsorship, no pomp and circumstance for the tributes. In fact, Snow and twenty-three of his classmates are the first mentors, brought in as a way to make the 10th anniversary of the Games different. As part of their mentor duties, they debate ways to make the Games more exciting and mandatory viewing. In their assignments, we see the first inklings of the macabre entertainment the Games later become.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes has a strong philosophical bent, reinforced by the epigraphs Ms. Collins includes. As a result, there are no easy solutions to the choices Snow faces. One might even feel empathy for him as he struggles to decide how best to treat humanity at large.
Along the same vein, Snow’s relationship with his assigned tribute remains murky. Much like the Wordsworth ballad Lucy Gray recites, Ms. Collins lets the reader decide what Lucy Gray’s true intentions are. How you see her character will depend on your philosophical beliefs of man and man’s goodness, which makes The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes the perfect prequel to the rest of the Hunger Games trilogy.
All this to say that I actually liked The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. I appreciate any author who presents her characters but leaves their “goodness” or “evilness” for the reader to determine. As I said earlier, most people do not start out in life wanting to become a tyrant. One obtains the title through a series of decisions and choices. Such is the case with Coriolanus Snow.