Alexandria is a lover of magical girl anime and obscure media who's been a Pretty Cure fan since college.
A Return to the Hunger Games
2020 has been a thoroughly unpredictable year, but not one without its bright spots. Even in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, certain art forms have been experiencing a resurgence, from the massive successes of She-Ra and Avatar: The Last Airbender on Netflix to the hype surrounding the Hamilton release on Disney+. In my personal opinion, though, young adult literature has benefited the most from this artistic hype.
Not only have more people turned to rereading their teenage favorites, but these same favorites have dominated the news in the past few months. Percy Jackson and the Olympians was recently greenlit for a TV adaptation, the Twilight novel Midnight Sun is finally seeing the light of day after over a decade of delays, and most recently, Suzanne Collins released an official prequel to The Hunger Games called A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.
The minute Collins announced her newest book, I was intrigued. Some authors, like J.K. Rowling, do everything they can to capitalize on past successes, but Collins has been surprisingly silent when it comes to The Hunger Games. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is her first book in seven years, and her first Hunger Games book in ten. Rather than a cash grab, Ballad came off as an idea she'd genuinely been sitting on for a while, and so I was one of many to preorder the book.
To my delight, I found that this book not only recaptures the magic Collins brought to the table years ago, but it happens to do so using one of the least likable characters in the entire series: President Snow.
What I Liked About Ballad
Like many follow-up novels to successful series, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes has been met with mixed reviews. I'll be the first to admit that it isn't quite like the original Hunger Games novels, as it tends to be more philosophical and contemplative than past installments. However, in my eyes, the new things it brings to the table are some of its greatest strengths.
For starters, its premise and the way it allows Snow to get tied up in the events of the 10th Hunger Games is pure gold. Before past victors were used as mentors, mentors were instead students from an elite Capitol academy. These mentors participated in the Games as part of a capstone-like project that awarded scholarships to the winning mentor. Seeing Snow, a penniless old-money Capitol citizen, go from seeing this as a financial opportunity to falling in love with his tribute, Lucy Gray Baird, is jarring in the best kind of way—especially since Snow never really lets go of his original motivations to use Lucy Gray to his own benefit.
The parallels to modern reality shows are especially striking in Ballad. The fact that both mentors and packages were introduced in the 10th Hunger Games as a way to attract viewers feels like the sorts of gimmick a reality show would pull to stay fresh in its 10th season. Throughout the book, we see that everything later tributes receive is nothing more than a publicity stunt—before, they had no food, no support, and were essentially treated like chattel to the point where some died before their competition even began. These changes were enacted not because the Capitol is merciful, but because a full 24-tribute Games is more entertaining—which makes the original series that much more horrifying.
Ballad shows that the Capitol was every bit as affected by the war as the districts while still refusing to justify their actions. Other reviewers have compared the early Capitol to the antebellum South, and I feel like this vibe was an excellent way to capture its brutality.
Its new characters are especially good, with Lucy Gray and Sejanus being particular standouts. Lucy Gray's role as District 12's bard works to flesh out the songs we've seen before in the series, and Sejanus, a former District 2 resident who moved to the Capitol, shows us that not everyone supports the Games. Lucy Gray's conflict over falling for Snow and Sejanus's conflict over his home and morality are believable and fleshed out.
Finally, Ballad brings intense philosophical questions to the table in a surprisingly approachable way. Enlightenment philosophers and human morality are huge motifs in this novel, and while these sorts of topics bored and confused me in high-school history, Collins makes them compelling and easy to understand. Much of the conflict between Lucy Gray, Sejanus, and Snow comes from their differing beliefs on the goodness of mankind—the former believe in human goodness, while Snow is more cynical. Since the prevalent belief of the Capitol is that humans are naturally savages, they refuse to question their own savagery with the Games and instead choose to lean on it.
What I Didn't Like About Ballad
This might just be a personal quibble, but I wish there would have been more conflict about just what a District 12 citizen falling for someone in the Capitol meant. While many tributes resent the Capitol, Lucy Gray never really shows these feelings, and I wish the idea of her falling for someone many see as her oppressor would have been fleshed out more. (Though since this book is from the perspective of someone who constantly tries to mold her into what he wants her to be, this silence could very much be intentional.)
The pacing varies throughout the book. While the last fifty pages are action-packed with a brisk pace, Ballad's philosophical nature means other parts are bound to drag. While I enjoyed these examinations into Capitol society, sometimes even I found myself wishing for more plot at times.
The politics between old money and new money in the Capitol means that several characters are introduced to Snow's narrative only to serve as people inside or outside his inner circle. For this reason, characters can sometimes be hard to keep straight and barely play any role other than an occasional mention. Although the plot requires 24 Capitol students, I wish Collins would have simply given some a passing mention rather than trying to characterize as many of them as possible.
Even with these complaints, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is not only a worthy addition to the Hunger Games franchise but also a stellar work of young-adult fiction—period. If this is how Suzanne Collins intends to expand the series, I eagerly await her next offering, whether it's a short story or another 500+ page deep dive into Panem society.
Rose McCoy on August 17, 2020:
Even the title is intriguing... very thorough job! :)
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on June 04, 2020:
Thanks for sharing your opinion about the book. You've created an interesting review. I'm looking forward to reading the story.
Noel Penaflor from California on June 03, 2020:
I've always been hesitant to revisit reboots of successful franchises because it always feels like a cash grab. I do like Collins as a writer and will read this sooner than later. Solid review.