4 out of 5 stars
I wasn’t immediately excited to hear that Suzanne Collins was publishing prequel to The Hunger Games. In our world of novellas and spin-offs, most attempts to revisit or extent a completed story feel like weak money grabs. And the books usually suck. (I’m looking at you, Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy, and the awful series-jack that is The Heir). Plus, it’s been a lifetime since I’ve read The Hunger Games, and I didn’t know I still cared.
Well, I do.
While The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes has a pompous and protracted title, the book is good. Really good. And Collins’ writing is as sharp and tight as ever, reminding me why I (and everyone) loved The Hunger Games so much.
Sixty years before Katniss volunteers as tribute, Coriolanus Snow is a Capital teen with big dreams, a bigger ego, and an enormous secret: his storied family is flat broke. So when the twisted Hunger Games-maker seeks to improve viewership among Capital citizens by recruiting their children as mentors, Coriolanus sees an opportunity.
There’s so much gratifying Hunger Games backstory here, it’s like a treasure hunt. Even a decade after reading the books, and six years since watching the movies, I remembered details like flashes as their origins were revealed. Each was delightfully twisted – many things Snow hates as the eventual villain began with things he liked, or at least used to advantage, in his youth. His personal experiences directly impact integral, yet random, details of Katniss’ story: Why is the mockingjay symbolic? What’s with that song she sings? Why does so much rebellion live in District 12? Even the Games themselves: so low-rent and low-tech, they’re simultaneously more and less brutal than what Katniss faces. It’s all brilliantly woven together: easy to follow on it’s own, richly satisfying for those who know the distant end.
Collins’ delight in writing strong female characters flows beneath the surface of Ballad. While it’s undoubtedly Snow’s story, he mentors District 12’s tribute, Lucy Gray Baird. She’s smart and cagey, talented and captivatingly weird. Part Gypsy, part urchin, part stone cold survivalist, Lucy Gray is the colorful light at the center of this book, and of Snow’s experience. Reading her, you understand so much of why Snow fears and hates and is obsessed with Katniss later in life.
Warning: Slightly spoilery all ye who enter here
My one gripe is the twist: Snow ends up a villain in the end, so that must also originate in Ballad. You wait for it as you read. When it does happen, it’s rather abrupt and convenient. Not unbelievable, but for a story heard entirely from his perspective, a book-long inner monologue if you will, Snow’s turn toward a future dark side is easier that I’d have liked. He struggles to be a good person throughout. It doesn’t read like he fails, but rather as if he gives up – and quite easily. For all the struggle it depicts, Ballad deserved a little more fight in the end.