The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the prequel to Suzanne Collins’ omnipresent and much-loved Hunger Games trilogy. I read and enjoyed the original trilogy of books, without really being a staunch defender or super fan. It was solid science fiction and certainly represents the pinnacle of the YA dystopia genre that it had a big hand in launching over the past decade. So I was certainly intrigued to return to the world Panem when I found out that Collins was penning a prequel.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes focuses on an 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow. For those who recognize the name but can’t place it, Snow is president of Panem during the happenings of the Hunger Games and is the primary antagonist from the trilogy. The Hunger Games are only in their tenth year and the physical and emotional trauma from the war with the districts are still fresh in the minds of the population of the capitol. Snow is one of the last members of a once great family line that has seen its stock fall precipitously in the years following the conclusion of the District rebellion.
At the start I should acknowledge that I don’t generally like prequels. It’s hard for me to maintain the same level of investment in a story when you know where it’s headed in the larger scale. Sure there are plenty of new things to be learned about the past of characters and places that flesh out the world you’ve experienced before, but it almost never manages to reach the same heights as what’s come before it. I found that to be the case with The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Sure it’s nice to read another full story in Panem, but I’m not sure why it is I’m supposed to be invested in the past of President Snow.
Part of why I thought the original trilogy was so successful was its theme of defiance and survival. In this prequel we’re seeing things from the other side. I get when authors want to humanize their villains and flesh out their motivations, but it’s just impossible to muster the same investment in an 18-year-old Snow helping to re-invent this show of slaughtering children as it was Katniss trying to survive said show. Is it interesting? I suppose it is. I didn’t hate the book, but I didn’t really care what happened to the main character because he grows up to be quite an asshole.
Prequels also have a habit of trying to take a rather small series of events in time and try to make them explain every happening in the original series. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is no exception to this rule. As the Games play out, the young mentors help to innovate the rules to make them more entertaining to the general population. Most of these new ideas will be familiar to readers of the original series and it’s a bit strange to think that a lot of what makes up the framework for the Hunger Games many decades later coincidentally occurred during the one snapshot in time that this book takes place.
I didn’t think this was a bad book, but I certainly didn’t enjoy it as much as The Hunger Games. I can see why those who are more passionate about the series would enjoy this one, and wouldn’t begrudge them for doing so. When you really love a series, any new scrap you get can be important. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes isn’t just a scrap either, it’s a fully woven cloth. If you enjoyed The Hunger Games, I’d recommend at least checking the book out, if only to immerse yourself in Panem for a while again, even if the story didn’t strike the same chord for me.