Should You Read It? My Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Review

Unless you've had your head stuck under a rock for all of 2020 (and I gotta say, more power to you if that's the case), you probably know that the new prequel to the Hunger Games trilogy, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, is currently gracing the shelves of a bookstore near you. The question on everyone's mind: is it worth reading?

The reviews of this bad boy have been mixed, to say the least, and I'm here to throw another opinion into the muddle! Is The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes any good, according to me and my all-powerful wisdom? Read on to find out, if you dare ...

NOTE: This review is spoiler-free, so I have to be a little vague about some things. Sorry!

Book Title: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher/Year: Scholastic, 2020
Genre: Dystopian
Number of Pages (According to Goodreads): 540
My Rating: 3 out of 5

Book description (from Goodreads):
It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capital, eighteen-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 outcharm, 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.

There's a LOT to unpack about this book, so I'm going to break it down bit by bit. The first question on the agenda, which cropped up basically as soon as this book was announced:

Is it Problematic to Have President Snow as the Protagonist?

When this book was first announced, a lot of people were immediately skeptical of Suzanne Collins' decision to have the evil President Snow become centered as the book's charming protagonist. Was Snow going to be portrayed as a good guy who just got unlucky? Was he going to be a sympathetic character? Was the book going to be apologetics for an evil mass murderer?

Luckily, I found that my skepticism melted away right from the get-go. The book is told entirely through Snow's perspective, and while he does have a few sympathetic qualities, it's pretty clear that he's a terrible person. He has a lot of bigoted thoughts about the districts, and he spends a lot of time complaining about how hard he has it while barely sparing a thought for the people living in starvation and poverty outside of the Capitol. Yes, Snow's family is struggling, but c'mon -- they have a freaking penthouse.

Side note: whoever drew this art of young Snow gave him a wonderfully punchable face. Good job, dude.

Snow's flaws are clearly shown in his relationships to other people, and even though he's pretty charming and a lot of people like him, his friendliness is extremely calculated. Whenever he's nice to someone, it's rarely because he actually likes them, and more often because he wants to get something out of it. In fact, he spends a lot of time internally monologuing about how much he dislikes various characters and only tolerates them as a means to an end.

Even when Snow supposedly falls in love later in the book, his thoughts toward the object of his affection are pretty possessive, with him constantly thinking things like, "She belongs to me." In the end, I don't think he actually did fall in love for reals, but to say much more would be spoilers. Suffice to say, my fears of his tragic heartbreak being the reason he ended up evil were unfounded. Nah, Snow is just evil anyway.

So what changes for Snow over the course of the book? Well, I didn't think his character arc was as strong as it could have been, but he basically ends up with his bigoted views cemented into his character, and gets well on his way to being the dastardly President Snow we saw in the original trilogy.

Basically, Collins doesn't hesitate to paint Snow as a pretty awful guy from the start, even as we're inside his head. The interesting thing is, reading his thoughts and learning about his motivations became a kind of lens through which I could examine my own privilege and reflect on how some of my own unconscious biases might actually match up with how Snow thinks. It was honestly pretty chilling. This is the thing I love most about speculative fiction -- taking modern-day issues and putting them into an unfamiliar context can help readers look at their own biases and place in the world.

A final note: if your name is Coriolanus, there is no way that a bunch of teenagers would choose to call you Coryo as a nickname when there's a much funnier option staring them in the face. I'm just sayin.

What About the Other Characters?

The major secondary character in this story is Lucy Gray Baird, the girl from District 12 whom Coriolanus has to mentor. I really liked Lucy Gray and her quirky, idiosyncratic nature, and she's pretty compassionate yet still ruthless when she has to be.

I liked the appearance of Tigris, but most of the other characters were honestly quite forgettable. A lot of them just seemed like cardboard cutouts, and the main antagonist character didn't come across as super complex -- her motivations basically added up to, "I think humans are savages and also I'm kind of psychotic, haha!"

The only other vaguely interesting character was Sejanus, and Snow spends most of his time with Sejanus internally monologuing about how annoying he is. Which is fair, given Snow's own views, but it still didn't make for great characterization.

(This meme I stole from Tumblr won't make much sense unless you've read the book, but trust me, it's hilarious)

All in all, I was pretty disappointed with how flat most of the characters in this book seemed, especially when the first trilogy gave us some truly awesome supporting characters. My disappointment was compounded by ...

The Weakest Aspect of TBOSAS: The Pacing

Anyone who's seen a physical copy of this book is going to immediately notice that it is a chonky boi. It's over 500 pages long, which outstrips the previous Hunger Games books by a good 100+ pages.

Now, I'm not against a good hefty tome, but you gotta earn those pages. I've read 500+ page books and whizzed through them, but honestly, this one dragged quite a bit. I can even forgive slower sections that help build up the characterization and themes, but this book's slow parts didn't even do that (again, most of the characters were pretty flat).

I think my perception of the pacing isn't helped by the fact that the third part of the story represents a MAJOR setting and tone shift that, to me, kinda lowered the stakes and interrupted Snow's character arc. It got sort of meandering, and I think a good 100 pages could have been cut -- especially from the third part -- without detracting from the character development, plot, or themes.

Basically, if you're expecting something as tightly-plotted and fast-paced as the original trilogy, you probably won't get it from this book.

Let's Talk About Fan Service

I'll admit to being something of a Hunger Games fangirl, and I gotta say, I tend to guzzle down fan service like lemonade. Good news: there were heapings of it in this bad boy!

I was pleased to see several familiar names mentioned in this story, including Flickerman, Crane, and Heavensbee. As I mentioned earlier, Tigris also shows up and plays a pretty significant role as Snow's cousin, and it makes her appearance in Mockingjay as his enemy that much more bittersweet.

Tigris, you go, girl!

The extra information about how the Hunger Games themselves came to be was especially interesting to me, and I loved that many of the aspects of Katniss's Hunger Games were actually invented over the course of this story, largely by Snow himself. It was very believable that the relatively low-key version of the Games in this book could evolve into the huge spectacle that it became sixty-five years later.

Finally, we discover where the songs The Hanging Tree and Deep in the Meadow came from, and I totally got chills when they cropped up. Well played, Collins. Well played.

Bonus: Philosoraptor Moment?

I bought the Barnes and Noble edition of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, which has an interview with Suzanne Collins at the back. In it, she talks about how she basically centered the narrative of this book -- and indeed, of the original trilogy -- around the various perspectives on the issue of social contract theory.

I won't bore you with a philosophy nerd lecture on social contract theory, but basically, if it feels like Collins constantly pits two schools of thought against each other -- the side that thinks humans are naturally savages who must be controlled, and the side that thinks humans are naturally good and can govern themselves -- you'd be correct.

I did pick up on the social contract theory aspect while reading this book (admittedly it was kind of in-your-face), but it was interesting to see Collins discuss it and the things she was trying to convey with this story.

So yeah, my philosophy nerd side appreciated that.

Annnnd What About the Movie?

Of course, the movie rights for this book have already been snapped up, which begs the question: am I going to go see the movie?

At the risk of sounding like a slave to the corporate mega-franchise The Hunger Games has become by this point, I absolutely do intend to see the movie. My main reason for doing so is that I hope most of the slow parts will be cut out, so I can only experience the good bits. Call me an optimist, but hey, it's almost a morbid fascination at this point.

Final Verdict

I did appreciate what this book was trying to do, between the philosophical bent and the extra details about the world of Panem, but I thought the execution was lacking. I decided to deduct a star for the pacing and another star for the characters, which leaves us at three tolerable stars.

Have you read this book, or are you planning to? Do you agree with my hot takes, or do you think they're a load of hot garbage? Please let me know in the comments!

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