Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

The much-anticipated film of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes starring Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler will be released on the 17th November. It is based on Suzanne Collins’s book, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the prequel to the globally renowned Hunger Games trilogy. Set sixty-four years before the time of the first Hunger Games book, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes follows none other than the future president of Panem, Coriolanus Snow. A student at the Capitol’s prestigious Academy, he is chosen as a mentor in the tenth Hunger Games where he falls in love with his District 12 mentee, Lucy Gray Baird. The book of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was hugely successful when it was released in 2020, being the top selling book in any category for the first half of that year. But is it worthy of the same status as the Hunger Games trilogy?

What surprised me the most about The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was how different it was from the Hunger Games trilogy, despite being set in the same dystopian world of Panem. The first half of the book takes place in the Capitol, which, far from the glamourous city we see in the trilogy, is struggling to rebuild after the district uprisings. Coriolanus’s reputable family has lost most of their wealth in the war, meaning that he often has to go without food. Even the Hunger Games are a new invention. Unlike the carefully crafted arenas in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, the arena in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is an empty space with no resources for the tributes apart from what their mentors send them. In this book, the Hunger Games mentors are not district victors but privileged Capitol citizens, and their tributes’ understandable animosity towards them puts their lives in jeopardy too.

A great strength of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is its characters. Having read the Hunger Games trilogy, I was expecting to hate Coriolanus. Instead, I empathised with him at the start of the book as he tried to make a name for himself amongst the Capitol’s elite in the hopes of providing financial security for his family. Coriolanus develops further through his love for Lucy Gray, putting his own life at risk in an effort to save hers. However, the cold and calculating side of Coriolanus emerges later in the book, especially through Dr. Gaul, a teacher at the Academy and the brains behind the Hunger Games. She delights in thinking up brutal ways to torture the tributes and encourages Coriolanus to reflect upon the nature of war and why the districts should be controlled. Through her character, the reader can see the origins of the dazzling yet cruel arenas of the Hunger Games trilogy, and the shaping of the heartless president who presides over them. Another notable character is Sejanus Plinth, a fellow Hunger Games mentor and close friend of Coriolanus. Unlike Coriolanus, Sejanus has a strict moral compass, and through his efforts to fight back against the barbaric practices of the Capitol, gets himself and Coriolanus into dangerous situations. Since he grew up in District Two before his father bought his family a life in the Capitol, Sejanus has a more clear-sighted perspective than Coriolanus on the treatment of the districts.

Despite its noticeable differences in setting, there are interesting links between the characters of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and the Hunger Games trilogy. In the first chapter of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, we are introduced to Tigris, Coriolanus’s sweet-natured cousin who lives with him and his grandmother. She is in fact the same isolated, surgically disfigured woman in Mockingjay who plays a key role in bringing down President Snow through harbouring Katniss Everdeen and the rebels in her shop in the Capitol. Her close bond with Coriolanus in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is fascinating, and leaves the reader to wonder about her decision far into the future to shelter his worst enemy. There are also links between Katniss and Lucy Gray. Although Lucy Gray has a sunnier and more optimistic personality than Katniss, they are both inextricably linked through being District 12 tributes and through their musical talents. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is filled with songs performed by Lucy Gray and her band, the Covey. Two of these songs, ‘Deep in the Meadow’ and ‘The Hanging Tree,’ are also sung by Katniss in the Hunger Games trilogy. An event in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes causes Lucy Gray to write ‘The Hanging Tree,’ which will live on decades later when Katniss sings it in Mockingjay to motivate the district rebels. Although Lucy Gray does not feature in the Hunger Games trilogy, her legacy persists through her songs which offer up some of the most tender and crucial moments in the books. Collins herself refers to the connections between Katniss and Lucy Gray in an interview.

Prequels and sequels written after popular book series can be hit-or-miss, but I believe that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is definitely a hit. Through this book, Suzanne Collins shows the unstable foundations of the Hunger Games’ beginnings, the people who shaped Coriolanus’s character, and the power of music to inspire rebellion. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is key to understanding the foundations of Panem, and I hope the film will show this as well.

Featured image belongs to the author.

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