Editor’s Note: This article contains minor spoilers from The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.
Amongst all the events currently exploding around the world, it is not a bad idea to seek solace within books. When word about a ‘Hunger Games prequel’ first spread, an exciting dynamic rippled through the book-lover world. The Hunger Games is the YA novel that millions of fans around the world enjoyed. Hence, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was destined to be a best-seller. However, is it a novel that deserves the attention of those who enjoyed Katniss’ story?
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes returns to Panem, but 64 years prior to the events of the first novel. Coriolanus Snow — whom the readers remember as Panem’s tyrannical president — comes forth as the main character of the story. The novel opens on a teenage Coriolanus, cooking cabbage soup as if fills the kitchen with ‘the smell of poverty.’ Everything described in the first few pages points to the Snows’ poverty: from the dilapidated Capitol apartment to Coriolanus’ threadbare clothes.
As an assignment in school, he is paired with a tribute from District 12 to mentor in the upcoming Hunger Games. For Coriolanus, this is not only a chance to earn a good mark and a scholarship to university (which he desperately needs) but also prove to the others around him that ‘Snow lands on top.’
However, what the readers remember as a grandiose and long-awaited event, is completely different in Ballad. The Hunger Games’ ratings are falling, with viewership being extremely low in the districts and the Capitol. Besides, one would never expect Coriolanus Snow to be in such a dire position. This paints a completely different Capitol compared to what the readers remember.
The premise of this prequel is rather intriguing. Not only does it grant the readers a chance to find out about life in the Capitol, but also about Coriolanus’ transformation into President Snow. It is a gradual corruption by his lust for power and desire to always stay on top. The main hero becomes an anti-hero by the end of the book, making it a fascinating character study.
Ballad is incomparable to the original trilogy in terms of writing style. It is far more mature and slow than Katniss’s story — perhaps because the main characters are completely different. Unlike Katniss, Coriolanus is cold and calculating, as well as somewhat egomaniacal. Even his desire for his tribute to win is nothing more than a part of his ambitious nature; his eventual love for her stems from possession.
However, the novel also strives to raise philosophical questions, prompting contemplation. Indeed, the original audience grew up since the initial boom of The Hunger Games during the 2010s and hence, Collins uses this opportunity to delve into deeper themes. Gone are the love triangle, the teenage rebellion and the youthful maximalism (although there is some of the latter in Coriolanus). Instead, the novel offers thoughts on humanity, power, chaos and how to control it.
‘What happened in the arena? That’s humanity undressed,’ the head Gamemaker, Dr. Gaul, tells Coriolanus. The novel fixates on these issues, considering and contemplating them over and over again. Even the Hunger Games themselves move into the background, comprising merely a smaller fraction of the novel. This could also reflect the way the Games were not so significant to the citizens of Panem in their first years.
The issue with Ballad is that it is not what some fans may have expected. For a person expecting a typical Hunger Games structure, this novel might be a disappointment. Not only is its pacing far from the quick and event-filled original trilogy, but also, it is more thought and dialogue-oriented. In this novel, Collins uses the Games as a ploy to develop her contemplations. They act as a tool, but are not the main focus.
Moreover, there is some meandering within the pace of events. There are times when you cannot put the book down. There are also times when you cannot help but put it down. Forming a sort of rollercoaster of events, it often feels as though Ballad is more drawn out than it should be: from the tension-filled build-up to the Games, to their quick escalation and their slow aftermath.
The ending is completely unpredictable and the novel features numerous twists and turns in its journey. If examined closely, one can notice how all of the events in Ballad lead to the other. Collins does not add anything for it just to be there. This is reminiscent of the original trilogy: while the prequel may be different in terms of pacing and matter, the quality stayed consistent.
A detail that I personally found delightful was the abundance of references to the original trilogy. Not only do we learn about the way the odds and sponsor system were introduced, but also get an insight into how jabberjays work and how The Hanging Tree song came to be. For a lover of The Hunger Games novels, there are numerous intricacies to be learned about the world of Panem from Ballad.
Concluding on The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Overall, Ballad is not a bad return to Panem. While there are issues with its pacing, it is still a work that could be savored by fans of The Hunger Games. Certainly, it is far from a classic dystopian novel, such as 1984 or Brave New World. However, Collins pushes the YA genre as far as possible, into the philosophical direction.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is not a soppy love-triangle story, set in a post-apocalyptic world. On the contrary, it is a thought-provoking study of power and corruption, bottled within the character of Coriolanus Snow.
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