Book Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

I don’t know if you know this or not, but I am a fan of dystopian novels and movies. And my favorite so far is The Hunger Games. I picked it up nearly eight years ago at a recommendation from my librarian. When I checked it out, she said, “You know, the movie adaptation is coming out in just a few weeks.” I didn’t know, nor did I care truthfully. But what I did know is that the story pulled me in, and I read the entire series within just a couple days. The character growth, the suspense, the engaging, developed world you suddenly find yourself in – I couldn’t put the books down.

Those are still one of my favorite series. So my excitement upon hearing about Suzanne Collins’ new book, a prequel to The Hunger Games, was palpable. Likewise when a friend offered to let me borrow it. (More on this later.) And I picked it up to begin and put it down finished within a weekend.

If you expect the story to feel exactly like Hunger Games, in terms of location, characters, or even attitudes and perspectives, you’ll be disappointed. If you expect it to be a very clear hero-to-villain tale, you’ll be disappointed. Collins weaves a story that is gripping and unexpected, all the while causing the readers to hold our breath because we know: the protagonist isn’t a good guy. At least, he doesn’t end up one. But you want him to be one, and it seems like he is a good guy. . . well, you just need to read it.

Coriolanus Snow is eighteen years old in this story, at the time of the Tenth Annual Hunger Games. It is the first year Mentors are introduced: the top students at a school in the Capitol are paired with each of the Tributes. Snow also suggests the concept of sending gifts into the Arena and sponsors for Tributes, among other “new” ideas to improve Hunger Games viewing and involvement.

It was interesting to get more of a backstory on the Hunger Games themselves: they were not always as high-tech and entertaining as the Hunger Games of the original series. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes almost has an old-fashioned, more historical feel. The way Collins writes makes you feel as if you’re getting a glimpse into what made the Games what they became, and of course what made Snow into who he became.

The story was intriguing, with continuous shifts and unexpected plot points. There is romance, friendship, loyalty, betrayal, death, and of course the constant question of what is truly right and what is truly wrong. Unfortunately, there does seem to be a lull in the story when the Games end and you begin Part III. It picks up later, but you have to stick it out through the flatness in the middle. The ending was unexpected, and yet you will find yourself nodding as you begin to see Snow’s true colors showing. (No spoilers – we already know he’s a bad dude!)

There are SO. MANY. CHARACTERS. The sheer number is a bit overwhelming. You’re introduced to basically a whole new cast when you start Part III. And the names are a little tacky. I mentally flinched every time I read “Coriolanus” – which was often because he is the main character – because it is such an odd, uncomfortable name to pronounce, even in your head. And there are plenty of other not-so-great names: Sejanus, Lysistrata, Treech, Iphegenia. The creative names and wide variety of characters felt like clutter at times. While I appreciate her thoroughness, sometimes Collins seems to add backstory where backstory is not needed.

Overall, the story was intriguing. I do think this is one prequel that should be read after the original trilogy is read. I think Suzanne Collins wrote it with that in mind! You have to understand the original series and the Seventy-Fourth (and Seventy-Fifth) Annual Hunger Games to fully appreciate how the Games were at the beginning. You need to know how shockingly evil and completely sickening President Snow is to get the full experience of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. The entire time I was reading this, I was just waiting with bated breath. At any moment, we’re going to see it. Any paragraph now, his true nature shines through. But actually, it’s not any particular moment – although I would be interested to chat with anyone who disagrees – but the entire story that shapes him. It’s the ups and downs he experienced, yes, prior to the book’s start, but especially during.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was truly a fascinating, unputdownable (Google told me that was a real word) story. I had heard mixed reviews, but I’m glad I read it and would definitely recommend it to anyone who has read The Hunger Games!

(featured image from studybreaks.com – no copywright infringment is intended)

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