The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (The Hunger Games #0) by Suzanne Collins (2020)
YA/NA Fiction | Dystopia
“It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the 10th annual Hunger Games. In the Capitol, 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to out charm, outwit, and outmaneuver his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute.
The odds are against him. He’s been given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, the lowest of the low. Their fates are now completely intertwined – every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favor or failure, triumph or ruin. Inside the arena, it will be a fight to the death. Outside the arena, Coriolanus starts to feel for his doomed tribute… and must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes.”
Book One: THE HUNGER GAMES
pooled ink Review:
THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD. It is darkly brilliant and I am here for it. Between its many pages we find Snow before he became the big bad President of Panem, the Hunger Games before all the cruel glitz and glamor, and new players that will draw you in and slit your throat while you smile. Gosh I love any sort of villain origin story so of course I jumped to pre-order the moment this book was announced. With each page I turned I felt both desperate and terrified to read through to the end.
“Let’s stay on topic, please.” Professor Demigloss scanned the room for a more productive answer. “How do we get people to watch?”
This book takes place during the year of the 10th Hunger Games, when Coriolanus Snow is set to graduate from the Academy and his final task is as a mentor for a tribute in the Games, but to gain the future just beyond his grasp he must win them. We get a “Behind the Scenes” look at the Games, we get to watch the Games from a different point of view, and we get to watch the Games begin to transform into the olympic spectacle we know it as (honestly the 10th Games was a bit of a bore for the most part and isn’t that just proof of how well crafted this book is that it managed to make me feel alongside the other viewers, that somehow a “game” of kids forced to murder each other was in any way dull??). We get to glimpse life in the Capitol, the life of the “have’s” instead of the “have not’s”, the life of wartime survivors, the life of the powerful once forced to kneel yet whom have risen victorious once more and those now forced to serve them. We get the chance to finally understand the main antagonist in the famous Hunger Games Trilogy that took the world by storm over a decade ago. We know the “Who” and now we get to begin seeing the “Why.”
This book had some serious twists and more than once I had to close my eyes and let out a slow sigh through my nose or instead simply found myself screaming. You think you know what this book contains? I assure you, you don’t. And that’s why it’s spectacular and why I kept coming back for more.
“Write me an essay on everything attractive about war. Everything you loved about it.”
“May I ask, what did you love about the war, Dr. Gaul?”
She looked at him for a long moment, then smiled. “I loved how it proved me right.”
I admit I didn’t exactly binge it, it wasn’t something I devoured without breath for the most part but not because it wasn’t binge-worthy. Instead I ended up sipping it like a fine wine, reading a handful of chapters at a time with pauses to lean back and consider. Some books I swallow whole and with others I dawdle…and still others I mull over, think through, allow to spin through my thoughts slowly and over the course of days, allow to consume my mind with endless pondering. Gosh villain origins are so fascinatingly complex, painted in gray with only flecks of white and black where it can be spared, where it can be afforded.
(spoiler if you haven’t read/watched The Hunger Games series) The moment when Katniss shifted her aim and shot that arrow into Coin’s heart instead of Snow’s…brilliant. (end spoiler) And reading this book? It becomes even clearer how history repeats itself, how power goes to those who need it, feed off of it, and goodness or rightness has nothing to do with it. To some it is nature, some it is addiction, and others it is survival. And sometimes it’s a combination of the three. Watching young Snow, a mere 18-year old soon-to-be Academy graduate begin building his legacy one smile and facade at a time is simply fascinating. Everyone is so quick to assume villains are just evil twisted people from birth, and maybe some are, but not the interesting ones. Snow has the burden of family to care for and the shame of poverty to hide…and he has the ingenuity and charm to overcome everything and become so much more which, as we see in The Hunger Games, he achieves. He has the need to control and it drives him in every way.
“What happens in the area? That’s humanity undressed…How quickly civilization disappears…A boy with a club who beats another boy to death. That’s mankind in its natural state…You can blame it on the circumstances, the environment, but you made the choices you made, no one else.” -Dr. Gaul
Collins is so unbelievably talented at exploring humanity, ethics, morality, philosophy, and making it so impossibly entertaining you become glued to the page, grasping the book with white-knuckles unaware as you yourself begin dancing the blurring line with the characters. It is a mark of excellent writing when you begin to empathize with a character you already know is not a good person, when you begin to understand them and even agree with some of their choices despite knowing exactly how they turn out. Collins takes Snow, an already well crafted antagonist, and brings a complexity to him that can only be described as disturbingly human. So very human, Snow. He laughs, he loves, he cries, he rages, he starves, he worries, he sings, he fights, he hopes, he dies…he conquers, he condemns, he controls.
“Now the audience is an active player in the Games,” Dean Highbottom inclined his head toward Lucky. “And you know what that means.”
“What?” said Lucky.
The dean spoke the next words so slowly, as if to a small child. “It means we’re all in the arena together, Lucky.”
Honestly the ties established with Snow to the Hunger Games, to Districts 12 & 13, to music, even to roses that come full circle in this book are both profound and somewhat exhilarating to discover and I find myself greedy to discover anything offered. It brings a whole new depth to Snow’s character as well as the general plot of The Hunger Games Trilogy because while in the trilogy he is simply some larger-than-life enemy, after reading this book you realize just how very very personal every move between him and Katniss was for him. It’s a realization that makes the heart pound heavy and drown all sound from one’s ears.
I’d be fascinated, now that I’ve finished this book, to go back and re-read that series. So many little clues, references, Easter eggs to unearth. So many phrases, reactions, and choices to dissect. To analyze, after reading this book, how he feels about the Districts, about the Games, about the Capitol, about Katniss holding Peeta’s hand, about the song that unites a nation. Of course it is mostly colored by Katniss’ POV, but still…she sees more than either the reader or she herself could understand. This prequel or villain backstory or whatever you want to call it provides a whole new lens with which to view things. Absolutely fascinating, intriguing, and precisely why I love these sorts of stories. Don’t give me a book four, give me the buried truth of before.
“Do you hear that, Coriolanus? It’s the sound of Snow falling.”
If I were to talk about every character I wished to then this review would be even more drawn out than it already is. You are likely familiar by now that my reviews on my blog tend to ramble, a place where I simply allow my thoughts and feeling to drain free upon the (digital) page. Dr. Gaius was truly mad and disturbing, an antagonist against humanity of sorts and yet as twisted as she was I could always count on her scenes to be intriguing. Dean Highbottom (couldn’t help but think of Neville Longbottom with the name haha) is a clear antagonist to Snow and it was interesting to see how easy it was to hate him getting in Snow’s way rather than search his words deeper and see how from another perspective he could quite possibly be interpreted as someone entirely different. I also appreciated seeing the varied personalities and views of both Snow’s fellow students/mentors and District tributes. A range of humanity and opinions was displayed on both sides, neither clear cut or right.
“…That’s who he was at heart. A protector. I don’t think he ever would’ve won the Games, because he’d have died trying to protect Lucy Gray.”
“Oh, like a dog or something,” Lepidus nodded. “A really good one.”
“No, not like a dog. Like a human being,” said Lysistrata.
And then there’s dear Lucy Gray Baird, District 12 Tribute. But what to say of her? She was different, she was real, she was dangerous. She fought, she sang, and she brought the walls tumbling down. But…I’ll let you read the tale of Lucy Gray for yourself.
Gosh I could probably write for ages more but I won’t haha. A part of me was hyper focused while reading and yet at the same time I was screaming from start to finish. This book is a must read.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes the assumptions of an antagonist and turns them on its head exposing the painful, complex truth of humanity and to think it all began with a bomb and a song. Brilliantly woven with characters that blaze and moments that pierce, this book adds a new dimension to Coriolanus Snow, to the Hunger Games, to the violent mystery that is humanity. Brace yourself before diving in because once you do everything you thought you knew will shift and whether by fraction or league it is a shift that one cannot un-know. Collins has once again proven herself a master of her craft. Excuse me while I stand and applaud.
Purchase here: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
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Meet Suzanne Collins!
Since 1991, Suzanne Collins has been busy writing for children’s television. She has worked on the staffs of several Nickelodeon shows, including the Emmy-nominated hit Clarissa Explains it All and The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo. While working on a Kids WB show called Generation O! she met children’s author James Proimos, who talked her into giving children’s books a try.
She currently lives in Connecticut with her family and a pair of feral kittens they adopted from their backyard.