Oh no no no no no no no, or My Review of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

The excitement for the Hunger Games prequel was huge – returning to Panem to learn Mag’s story, or Finnick’s, or Chaff’s… That would have been incredible. But when the announcement came that the novel was focusing on Coriolanus Snow as our new ‘hero’ (I still shudder thinking about the Entertainment Weekly report), many of us were sceptical, to say the least. Some tried to argue that Hunger Games enthusiasts should wait to read the book before making a judgement as Collins was sure to pull off some amazing feat of giving us important insights into the most hateful person in Panem… and here is why they were wrong.

I’ll start off by saying that I found the original trilogy so important. I wrote a whole dissertation on it. I passed these books along to my mother, who loved them so much, she gave them to my grandma who also loved them. So much of my youth has been spent reading and re-reading the trilogy over and over again. I even made it through all the films! But I was left sorely disappointed by this novel…

TWs (for the book, but some are discussed in this review): violent/wilful murder, death of children, starvation, mutilation of corpses, enforced sex work.

From the get-go, I struggled with the narrator. It’s a long stretch for Collins to expect us to sympathise with Coriolanus Snow, knowing what he goes on to do in Katniss’s story. This is the man who forced Katniss into a fake engagement, who poisened his political adversaries, who barricaded himself into a mansion behind a group of children. He is responsible not only for the death of hundreds of children in the Games, but also for the death of the victors’ loved ones, like Haymitch’s, when the victors in any way undermined the Capitol’s absolute rule. This man has brought so much terror and pain on so many people. Please excuse me for not jumping at the opportunity to read about Coryo’s petty problems during his youth.

And, really, we know people in the districts quite literally starve to death while there’s an overabundance of food in the Capitol. People in the districts get shot for deviating the slightest bit from Capitol protocol. Rue tells us about a child with mental health issues getting murdered for keeping some night vision goggles to play with them. By comparison, the Snows having to wear second-hand clothing seems rather trivial. Yes, they have financial issues and eat a lot of cabbage soup as a result, yet they still have a way of filling their bellies. Katniss didn’t, for months on end. Watched her little sister wither away while her mother was in a stupor. And all of this is on Snow and the way he rules the country.

This book focuses on the transformation from the Hunger Games as a punishment in the early years to a death spectacle with mandatory viewing after Snow gets involved. This transformation, however, didn’t add anything to my understanding of Panem or the Games. We already knew the Capitol citizens were sponsoring tributes to enhace their chances of winning in the betting – the fact that this strategy was introduced at some point is a given. Much of this book seemed to be about name dropping (wait until you find out how Tigris fits into all of this!) and references to the original trilogy (so many songs, so many mentions of things catching fire, and mockingjays, and katniss) that it felt like skillful fanfiction rather than worldbuilding by the author. A whole list of quotes from Romantic philosphers introduces the reader to the book, and Collins states in the Reader’s Guide (included in some exclusive editions) that she wanted to explore ideas on human nature – and I would argue that she failed to do so.

Let’s be honest – a lot of aspects of The Hunger Games trilogy are problematic, from stereotypes surrounding PoC to complete erasure of LGBT+ characters (depending on where you place Katniss on this). Children’s publishing was less diverse 10 years ago (and still has a long way to go) so this could have been Collins’s chance to show that her writing’s developed alongside the publishing world… And she did attempt to, in the tiniest mention of one of the Covey girls having a girlfriend. Are you feeling underwhelmed, too? Instead, we got the sob-story of a privileged white man who – oh no – has to earn his acceptance into university, to become a dictator. *sigh*

The romance in this book is not the least bit convincing. Without wanting to give anything away, it is extremely inconsistent, with both sides seeming to constantly change their minds, back and forth, until it all blows up in their faces. That they could trust each other in the first place is unbelievable, and it shows a lack of awareness on the author’s part that she would even follow down this line. Particularly the ending to this relationship is incredibly disturbing, but, really, so is the romance in its entirety. Every time Snow claimed that this young woman was his and no one else’s, I despaired just a little more. I thought we’d left behind romanticising abusive, possessive relationships in YA in 2013. Alas, we have not. It makes me grateful for the non-romance between Katniss and Peeta because Snow’s story is a disaster on so many levels.

What’s also a disaster is the privileged Capitol mindset we get crammed down our throats the entire novel. Let me give you an example: it is suggested that someone from the districts may have participated in sex work in order to stay alive. Rather than sympathising with their situation and feeling empathy towards the person taking a hardship upon themselves to keep their family alive, Snow acts disgusted that anyone could stoop this low. This, my friends, is a huge problem in our society. Making prostitution a taboo and degrating sex workers, rather than offer alternatives to those who want out and protection and safety to those who don’t, leaves a lot of people in such a vulnerable place. When Snow, however, hears that someone who is close to him in the Capitol may have worked as a sex worker to survive, he feels empathy for them. Now here is what really gets me. I am to believe that the man who sold children into sex traficking – Finnick would have been 15 or 16 when he started being handed around the Capitol for the President’s benefit – sympathises with someone who went through a period in their lives where they had to sell their bodies, and then goes on to use this exact thing to their advantage? I’m sorry, Suzanne, you lost me here. The entire book sees the Capitol mentors flicking back and forth between wanting the district children to survive, and just trying for a good reputation for mentoring them successfully (as you can guess, the latter wins out for almost all of them). I will say that the storytelling got slightly better in the third part of the book but overall I just wish I had never read it. I went in with low expectations, and was still disappointed.

I am interested to hear your thoughts on this book!

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