I managed to get my hands on the new(ish) Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games prequel novel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes at the library, taking on the story of the original series’ uber-villain Coriolanus Snow. Going in, I’d seen the decidedly mixed reviews for the book – NPR called it “lackluster” while Vox gave it 3.5 stars out of 5 – but I liked the original novels enough to give it a read.
As the Vox review notes, Collins tends to be somewhat weaker on character development but a master of setting, and that really affects this novel that turns so heavily on a single character. Despite spending a considerable amount of time observing Snow, there were multiple times I felt as though I wasn’t quite inside his head or that the narration (third person here rather than the first person as in the originals) wasn’t quite reliable. This may be by design – Snow is nothing if not the sort of character who would be an unreliable narrator – but it’s mildly irritating at times to be reading the book for the “inside scoop” and find more layers of obfuscation. The story is meandering and slow at times, especially compared to the tighter plotting of the Hunger Games trilogy.
Where this novel truly shines, however, is the way Collins turns the premise of the original trilogy around entirely. In the original books, heroine Katniss Everdeen had a knack for presenting her decisions to self-sacrifice, support causes to help people, and champion justice as simply the right thing to do. At times, she’s almost passive in her choices. Katniss sees the right choice as so obvious that there’s virtually no other option for her.
Ah, but of course, there is another option, even if most of us know instinctively as Katniss does that the other option is morally despicable. That’s the point of the novel as I see it: fleshing out the shadow option and what happens when it’s chosen. Collins is showing the counterpoint to her hero and somewhat unusual in that she’s staunchly honest in the unflattering portrait she presents of Snow.
Snow himself is careful, cunning, calculating and always cognizant of his family’s former glory before the war. It’s not hard to shudder as Snow slips through cracks, exploiting weaknesses, and watch as Snow slowly, subtly elevates evil to something that’s twistedly elegant, shining, and accepted.
At first the choices presented to Snow are minor – white lies, really, such small things that simply keep Snow from some discomfort or advance his social standing. It’s largely understandable why Snow does what he does or even sort of justifies it. Collins holds up a mirror here: how easy it is to make a morally wrong decision through passivity or the seemingly minor choices to lie or cut corners or cheat just a little until suddenly, the story is the prequel to, well, the Hunger Games in all their brutality.
These progress – as they do – to bigger and bigger decisions that ultimately are quite defining indeed. It’s a damning progression that Collins writes plausibly, calling attention to the rewards and punishments Snow gets for his choices and how one eventually outweighs the other. Collins makes a real point about the weakness of virtue functioning as its own reward because all too often, the shadow option comes with far more tangible ones – while virtue has varying costs.
In many ways, it’s an uncomfortable read but a necessarily dark counter-portrait to Katniss Everdeen – especially in today’s world.