For those of you who may not know the old school history of The Fandom, we started with a project called The Potter Games, a “choose your own adventure” style mashup of Harry Potter characters in The Hunger Games. Most of the people from that project, including myself, owned a Hunger Games fansite back in the day (RIP Victor’s Village,) participated in the Hunger Games Fireside Chat podcast, and attended events in NYC and LA surrounding the book and movie launches. Needless to say, I lived and breathed The Hunger Games for a decent chunk of my fandom life.
Still, when I heard about The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, I was a little skeptical. In the current political climate, did I really want a prequel in which corruption is inevitable and the antagonist rises to power? Did I need to see exactly how Snow gained a stranglehold on Panem? It just all felt so… pessimistic. But what I forgot is that this book is by Suzanne Collins, who turns every story into an intricate study of human nature while always keeping readers fascinated. Ballad is not a happy book and it did feel a little harder to read because of the current state of the world– I won’t lie to you about that– but it’s also a deeply interesting book that left me reeling!
The prequel novel takes place surrounding the 10th Hunger Games, during which a young Coriolanus Snow, future president of Panem, and his classmates in their final year of secondary school are chosen to facilitate a new feature in the games: They’ll each be assigned one district tribute and become the first ever mentors. Coriolanus is disappointed to be assigned the District 12 girl, which is typically not a strong prospect. But Lucy Gray Baird has a spark that young Snow knows he can market under the right circumstances and as the games grow closer, his desperate need to win and preserve his family name (and Lucy Gray’s life) grows stronger.
When it comes to developing character psychology, Suzanne Collins hasn’t lost her edge. I thought I knew exactly what young Coriolanus Snow was going to be like and admittedly, I was wrong. Though he’s not a full-fledged dictator at the end of the novel, you get some great insight into how he came to justify himself and gained status doing it. You see how Snow’s own experiences as a mentor and a young Capitol citizen helped re-engineer the very games themselves. More than that, it gives readers a much deeper understanding as to why The Hunger Games-era Snow is so obsessed and even sometimes seemingly delighted by Katniss’ rebellious nature as he makes all efforts to destroy her life.
The Panem of Ballad is not the Panem we previously knew. Ten years post-war, The Capitol is still half-destroyed and struggling to get on their feet. While in better shape than the districts in many ways, it’s not decadent or opulent. In fact, it’s barely holding its high-class facade together. The districts also haven’t completely given up their fight against The Capitol, despite the annual Hunger Games. The games themselves run much differently and don’t generate much interest. The country is on a precipice, and anyone with the right influence could tip it over the edge, one way or another. BUT the callbacks between the world of Ballad and The Hunger Games trilogy are incredible! You’ll come out of reading this book with so many different theories on how the old Panem and the new Panem are connected, and they don’t all revolve around Coriolanus Snow.
As far as pacing goes, Ballad is slower than the original series. Snow’s story is one of politics and power. There’s some action in the mix, but it isn’t nearly as relentless. It’s also more about the consequences than the actions themselves. All the same, Collins kept me moving from chapter to chapter pretty quickly thanks to her uncanny ability to end several chapters with a jaw-dropping quote or a full-on cliffhanger. I missed that!
You’ll notice I haven’t dived too deeply into the novel’s other characters and that’s mostly to avoid spoilers. However, I can say that I loved Lucy Gray’s mysterious intensity and her strong family ties (which invite theories all their own.) I also really appreciated Sejanus, a district-born idealist who lives among the Capitol elite, and Tigris, who is SNOW’S FREAKING COUSIN and a window into his true self.
Ballad has a strong ending that stands well on its own, but also leaves some room of a potential sequel. I don’t know if Collins will actually write that sequel, as it probably would have been announced in the initial deal. But man, the fan fiction is gonna be amazing!
To rate this book, I have to weigh it against the series as a whole. In that sense, it can never quite be a 5 star read because Catching Fire exists. As previously mentioned, it also moves slower and proves to be a more challenging read in darker times, but it’s still an engrossing, powerful tale that’s not to be missed!
RATING: 4.25 OUT OF 5 STARS
Ambition will fuel him.
Competition will drive him.
But power has its price.
It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capitol, 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.