Maybe I should complain about my books not getting here on time more often, because literally the minute I publicly aired my grievances about the lateness of this preorder in my Book Spine Poetry post, the mailman arrived with a package for me!! And, as soon as I got my hands on this book, I dropped everything and started reading. Sorry to all you complex function theory students whose homework I was in the middle of grading – you’re just going to have to wait until Monday for your results…
Anyway, I LOVED this book! And I’m so glad I did 🙂 From what I’ve heard, reviews for this have been very mixed – though I haven’t looked at any yet because I wanted to go into this blind – so I was a little apprehensive that this might let me down as well.
And, honestly, I think I get why some people don’t like it. If you’re here for another story that actually covers the Hunger Games themselves, has lots of action, and underdog you can root for: this is the wrong book for you. The games do play a huge part in this, but they’re nowhere near as engaging as in the original trilogy. Instead, they provide the backdrop to what I thought was a fascinating insight into politics and philosophy. This book gets you thinking, it is merciless in its social critique, it has a main character who you can’t help but sympathize with and hate at the same time. It gives an utterly believable backstory to how the Hunger Games as Katniss knows them came to be. I was so engrossed, I couldn’t put it down. I basically tore through this in one sitting (OK, excluding a break I took to eat some cookies that my sister had baked), and I really want to reread it soon!
SOME BASIC INFO:
Title: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publication Date: May 19, 2020
Date Read: May 29, 2020
Rating: 5/5 Stars
It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the 10th annual Hunger Games. In the Capitol, 18-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 out charm, 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.
So, regarding the probably most frequently asked question: Is this as good as The Hunger Games? Personally, I’d say it’s hard to compare, because these are very different stories. If you like one, I don’t think you’d necessarily enjoy the other. And though this is most definitely a five-star read for me, it doesn’t reach the level of love I have for the original trilogy. That masterfully combined action, a likeable main character, and social critique, whereas The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is much less action heavy. It is way more character and politics-driven, and meanders about a lot. In my opinion, though, that was exactly what this story needed, and it pretty much fulfilled my expectations and even managed to surpass them.
Now, though, let’s get into spoilers! Be prepared for an onslaught of chaos: Let’s just say there’s a reason why I titled this “Rambly First Thoughts” and not “Book Review”…
**Some SPOILERY Thoughts**
Don’t read on if you haven’t read the book and don’t want to be spoiled!
These will be in no particular order, but just a list of a bunch of things I thought were worth discussing or interesting 😉
#1 The Epigraph
As soon as I opened the book and saw the epigraph, I knew this book would give me the political depth I was longing for. The last few weeks of my exam preparation have been heavily focused on 17th and 18th century literature, so I had actually done extensive reading up on all of these texts (Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Second Treatise of Government by John Locke, The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rosseau, Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth, and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley), with the exception of the Wordsworth poems, right before I read this. Basically, all of them center around the question what makes us human, and whether humanity is inherently good or inherently bad. And this book picked up that theme masterfully! There was so much questioning of what is innately human and the purpose of the games; and, as much as I hated Dr. Gaul, those essay topics she posed really got me thinking. The number of philosophical questions woven into this book is astounding, and I love how organically it was done. Honestly, I can almost excuse my taking the entire day off from work to read this by saying that this is as least as packed with Enlightenment philosophy as lots of the textbooks I’ve been using to study with recently…
#2 The Post-War Capitol
It was so interesting to see this side of the Capitol! Not the glamorous, fashion-crazy capital where people throw up so that they can stuff themselves with more food, but a place where some streets are still strewn with the rubble from bombings. A place where a boy from an influential family like the Snows can’t afford a fancy shirt and is scraping by on cabbage and beans. A place where people remember air raids when they couldn’t reach shelters in time, times when they stood in line for rations or were forced to cannibalism, a time when they were plagued by dangerous diseases.
Still, underlying all of that was the opulence and superiority that is so magnified 64 years later. No one talks of financial struggles, and Coriolanus goes to great lengths to keep up the facade of coming from a wealthy, well-to-do family. Despite what they have done for the Capitol, the Plinths are treated like second-class citizens and can never hope to be truly accepted. Outsiders are beneath true Capitol citizens, and this is especially evident once we see the tributes. They live in a zoo and get no food, have no access to hospitals, and yet no one thinks this is wrong! Coriolanus’ pitch to win the crowd for Lucy Gray depends entirely on her being too “Capitol-like” in behavior to truly belong in the Districts.
And yet, there was nuance within the Capitol. There were people who clearly questioned these measures. Most obviously, Sejanus. But also people like Lysistrata, who genuinely came to care about Jessup when he saved her during the bombing and finally started to see him as human. Tigris, who showed great sympathy for Lucy and hinted at horrible things she’d resorted to in the past to make sure her cousin wouldn’t have to suffer more hardship than he already did. The vet who tried to get the tributes sent to a hospital. Dean Highbottom, who said some extremely insightful things during those interviews with Lucky Flickerman, though he was probably so dosed on morphine that no one gave much thought to what he said.
Overall, this was a great portrayal of a society struggling with its past, but in denial about these struggles. The superiority of the Capitol is preached over and over again, in fact, it is so drilled into Coriolanus’ mind that whenever he gets close to starting to question it, he immediately gets angry and starts defending what he was skeptical about to begin with. Take his reaction to the games – when asks why the Capitol needs the Hunger Games, he falters. He can’t come up with a good reason, but he vehemently defends them and says they are necessary just the same. And then he uses his later experience to justify them, to say he had known this all along. He gets mad when Lucy talks about the death of her father: How does she have any right to criticize the Capitol, when the rebels are responsible for his own father’s death? He pines for the Capitol once sent to the Districts and refuses to listen to criticism even when the girl he loves suffered under the very measures he tries to defend.
This reaction, I think, is so on point. You see this in real world politics all the time – people so blinded by the love for their country or home that they can’t take anyone criticizing it. And I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t love your country or be proud of it! Of course you’re going to identify with the place where you were raised and should be proud of its achievements! But you also need to think critically. No place in the world is perfect, and if we want to strive for improvement, we need to be brave enough to face our flaws as well as our accomplishments. If we see that something happening is wrong, we need to speak out rather than get defensive because we think that everything our country does must be inherently right. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes I think, points out what can happen when patriotism is taken too far, in an engaging and honestly pretty frightening manner.
#3 The Social Criticism
Since I’ve already started talking about this topic, I might as well stick to it. Honestly, the mirror this book forces us to look into can be quite brutal. This is especially true of the US. Some of the criticism is, quite honestly, not very veiled at all. Take the following examples:
The first year of the war, she’d played the recording [of the national anthem] on national holidays for five-year-old Coriolanus and eight-year-old Tigris in order to build their sense of patriotism. (Collins 4)
Loud objections came from the audience in the hall. This disregard for the national flag shook them. As Reaper began to saw his way through the flag, carving off a piece the size of a small blanket, the unease grew. Surely, this would not go unchecked. Surely, he would be punished in some way. But given that being in the Hunger Games was the ultimate punishment, no one knew what form it should take. (Collins 272)
We see a society that uses its anthem to manipulate and indoctrinate its children, where the well-being of a flag matters more than a dying girl whom the fabric can offer at least some protection. Of course, I am in no way saying that the US does this. I spent a large part of my childhood there and, though attachment to symbols like the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance feels a little strange to someone coming from a country where showing your flag is shunned on any occasion other that the FIFA World Cup, I really liked how much love people in the US had for their home country. But The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes shows what can happen if things are taken just a little bit further. We have seen instances were athletes tried to peacefully protest by kneeling during the US anthem, and the backlash they got for it was probably worse than what many brick-throwing rioters receive. This is a country were disposing of a flag incorrectly can literally get you fined.
And maybe it’s a good thing if you value your country and show that respect through symbols. I honestly couldn’t say. But what I think this book is meant to remind us of is that objects and symbols shouldn’t start to mean more than people’s lives. We shouldn’t let patriotism blind us to problems, and to make sure that those symbols still stand for something, we need to live up to the values we believe in.
That, I think, is a lesson every country can take from this book. There was so much else in here: about corruption, about war, about dividing people into first- and second-class citizens. Honestly, most of this could apply to Germany just as much as the US. The way some people talk about refugees here is honestly frighteningly reminiscent of what the Capitol has to say about people from the districts. Discrimination is a universal problem, and The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes makes us see how inherently stupid distinctions like these actually are.
#4 The Evolution of the Hunger Games
So, now that I’ve probably already offended a lot of people with my political opinions, let’s get back to something a little bit less controversial 😉 I hope some of you are still reading!
Anyway, another thing I found fascinating about this book was the way the Hunger Games looked in comparison to the ones we see in the original trilogy. Here, we have no fancy arenas, no training time, no presentation of the tributes for which they have to be pampered. They literally arrive on a livestock train and are dumped in a zoo. They don’t get food. These games are boring – the reader can feel it, and so does the Capitol audience. We actually get to see the beginnings of the “modern” Hunger Games – how TV interviews, mentoring, sponsorships started. Why the gamemakers started adding mutts to the equation. Why viewing was eventually made mandatory. We get to see all the planning and thoughts that went into this, how all of it was designed to get people to actually watch the games. It gets you as a reader to question your morality, too. When the snakes were dumped in the arena, I though “yes, some excitement – this is livening things up”. And then I felt guilty, because didn’t this mean I was kind of like the Capitol, getting a kick out of watching violence? I don’t know the answer to that, but what I do know is that a good dystopian should get you to question exactly these kinds of things.
#5 Coriolanus as a Narrator
I also thought it was extremely interesting to be in Coriolanus Snow’s head. Creepy, but interesting. Did I like him? No. But I did sympathize with him and, almost against my will, found myself rooting for him. I wanted him to show those people at the academy that he could achieve greatness. I wanted him and Tigris to not be evicted from their home. I was rooting for him and Lucy. Even when I didn’t agree with his thoughts, I could see why he thought about things the way he did.
The nuance this book pulled off was astonishing. I’m kind of reluctant to call Snow a villain, since I don’t think anyone is really inherently bad or good. But this book makes you understand how he could become what he did, how he was able to stand in the face of so much suffering in The Hunger Games and revel in it.
And, honestly, I thought the narration gave us a fascinating look into Coriolanus’ head. We could see what he really thought of Sejanus, when outwardly, he was treating him with nothing but kindness. We saw how his own ambition was basically the driving force behind everything he did. How little he really cared about his so-called friends, like Clemensia. But when you thought about what he actually said and how he acted, he seemed like the kindest, most loyal friend you could imagine. You could clearly see what a master manipulator he is, and I thought this was a fascinating POV to experience the story from.
Plus, you could tell just how insecure Coriolanus was. How much control – or his three Cs – meant to him. I think the way he reacted to the mockingjays was very telling. He hated them, because they symbolized that something the Capitol created was out of its control and had taken on a life of its own. A fear that is very much reflected in his relationships. When he can no longer control Sejanus’ rebel sympathies, he betrays him. He doesn’t tell anyone about his family’s financial problems but goes to great lengths to appear put together. He won’t even take free food even though he’s starving, because he doesn’t want people to see the extent to which the house of Snow has fallen. He writes an essay in the middle of the night after his friend has just died, because he wants to be seen as a good student worthy of university. He needs to stay in control.
#6 Coriolanus and Lucy Gray
Let’s talk about the romance! I suppose this could also be a reason why people found this book disappointing, because, in all honesty, there wasn’t much to ship here. But I don’t think love was the point of this story. True, one might criticize that Coriolanus and Lucy fell for one another rather quickly, but in this case, it felt realistic, especially since I don’t think this was really love. At least on Coriolanus’ part, it felt more like infatuation. This girl was different from the ones he’d gotten to know in the Capitol, she wasn’t afraid to speak out, she was vibrant. And since he had been tasked to take care of her, he let her get closer to him than he ever let anyone else, apart from possibly Tigris. I think Coriolanus didn’t really realize how lonely he was, and here was someone he could talk to without having to fear that he would lose his reputation. And yet he never truly did open up to Lucy. He never told her how he really felt about the Districts. He shut her down angrily the moment she wanted to talk about their parents’ deaths. He couldn’t tell her about his part in Sejanus’ death. When it really mattered, he couldn’t let her in, and ultimately, he didn’t believe she really trusted him, was ready to hunt her down, and more than willing to place his ambitions above a future they might have had together. He only ever really cared about himself, which becomes obvious when he reflects on how he should marry Livia Cardew and never let love get in the way of his plans for Panem again. He cuts emotion off from his life completely, which was just horribly, horribly sad.
As for Lucy, I’m still not really sure what I think of her, probably because I only ever saw her through Coriolanus’ eyes. I’m not sure how much Coriolanus’ really meant to her – I mean, it did kind of seem like she was still a little hung up on Billy Taupe, given all those songs she wrote. But then again, that might just have been Coriolanus’ paranoia, and she did write him a song, too. And I’m also not sure if I should admire her for her spunk or see her as ruthless. Katniss, at least, had terrible flashbacks to what happened in the games. Lucy almost seems to go on as normal, as if all those deaths didn’t really affect her. Is she ruthless and ambitious? Was she maybe using Coriolanus a little, too? Or did she genuinely care and try to use her music to speak up for something better? I thought that was very ambiguous, especially given the way everything was filtered by the narration, but I kind of liked it that way. This was Coriolanus’ story, so we only every got to experience things the way he saw them. The rest is up to our own interpretation.
#7 The Hanging Tree and Music
Okay, so at first, when we got introduced to this spunky girl from District 12 who liked to sing, I was a little disappointed. This is almost too similar to Katniss, couldn’t Suzanne Collins have gone with something different?, I thought. But once the story unfolded, I started to love this aspect of it, and the context it provides for the original trilogy. Music is a huge part of my life, so I always love seeing it in books, but the moment I really started to adore this aspect of the story was when we saw Arlo’s hanging. Suddenly, it clicked. People said he had killed three people. He was hanged in a tree. He called out for his girlfriend Lil to run. Had Lucy written The Hanging Tree in response to witnessing Arlo’s hanging? My sleuth skills were running high, and when my suspicions were confirmed, I loved it! I think this fits so well, and Lucy’s entire connection to music and her personality just made the relationship between President Snow and Katniss so much more interesting. I can’t imagine how he wouldn’t have been able to see the parallels: A spunky girl from District 12, who sang the same song to a dying Rue that Lucy once sang to him? It’s got to have affected him. I really want to go back and reread the Hunger Games trilogy again now, just to see if I can read more into their interactions now that I know all of this! And honestly, if Snow saw Katniss as some new version of Lucy coming back to haunt him, so much would make sense! The way he taunted her, sent her those personal messages he knew only she would understand. The roses. The way he used Peeta to get back at her. Was he doing that as a way to lash out at Lucy, yet also seek to reconnect with her?
Oh, Sejanus! If only more people in the world thought the way you did… Sejanus was by far my favorite character in this book (second place probably goes to Tigris). I loved him, and basically everything that came out of his mouth is something I would whole-heartedly support. I loved how he refused to compromise his ideals, and I was heartbroken when he died, though I did see it coming. I guess he was too pure for this world… But he shouldn’t have had to be!
At least Coriolanus did feel horrible about betraying him – serves you right, Coriolanus, though you should have felt even more horrible, if you ask me. And the way he tried to justify what he did by saying no-one would ever listen to the jabberjays anyway. How could you! Sejanus always stuck by you and loved you like a brother, and this is what you do! And then you let his parents finance your career, though you despise that they come from the Districts and are responsible for their son’s death? This is probably one of the worst things President Snow has ever done. (Also, is it weird if I kind of shipped Coriolanus and Sejanus more than Coriolanus and Lucy? Not that I ever wanted anything to happen between them, but I’d like to think there were some homoerotic undertones? Clearly, I’ve been reading way too much Shakespeare lately…)
#9 Dr. Gaul and Dean Highbottom
Dr. Gaul is an evil, crazy snake, and I hated her. She had a twisted sense of humanity, and the worst thing was: No one ever questioned her! Were people just too scared to say anything? I don’t think so. I think many people actually agreed with what the Hunger Games stood for. They wanted revenge. They wanted entertainment. They found Dr. Gaul fascinating. And despite thinking that she was mad, Coriolanus clearly idolized her and poured his heart and soul into those essays she asked him to write. Again, I think that this character was a genius dystopian move. We have to think about whom we put in power and keep them in check so that they don’t misuse it!
As much as I despised Dr. Gaul though, she really got me thinking. Her philosophical ideas were really interesting to think about, especially in contrast to Dean Highbottom. At first, I thought Highbottom was just an asshole who hated Coriolanus because he wasn’t wealthy and because he had snubbed him. But then, when that first interview with him happened, I was intrigued. Here was the creator of the Hunger Games, saying things that sounded suspiciously anti-Hunger-Gamesesque. Shocking Coriolanus with the idea that District citizens would be exactly like Capitol citizens if they were given the same opportunities. And when I found out how the Hunger Games really came to be – I felt so awful for him. I can’t imagine having the guilt of living with having inadvertently created something that meant so much suffering for others.
Honestly, Dr. Gaul is just so twisted. Maybe we can get a prequel about her next? I’m kind of enjoying these villain origin stories….
#10 Coriolanus and His Family
Just to quickly mention this: Does anyone else want to know more about Coriolanus’ family backstory? I mean, he obviously adored his mother and had some sort of strained relationship with his father, though he does jump to his defense in that one conversation with Lucy. I want to know more! And I also want to know more about Tigris. What, exactly, did she do to protect her cousin? And how did she and Coriolanus get so estranged that she would be willing to help Katniss bring him down?
So, yeah, as you can probably tell, I have a lot of thoughts on this book 😁 While I didn’t like the protagonist, I found the story fascinating and couldn’t put it down! I would recommend it to any Hunger Games fans who are interested in the politics and the history of this world, and who enjoy some heavy social criticism.
If you’ve made it this far without falling asleep during this endlessly long dissertation of a review – What did you think? Did you like this book? Did it disappoint you? What were some of the things you found most interesting? I’d genuinely love to know!