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Impure as the driven Snow – ‘The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’

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When does a villain become a villain? At what point does a person reach the tipping point that sends them spiraling into the darkness? Is it a singular event? Or simply the culmination of a thousand smaller moments? Does it even matter?

These are the sorts of questions that power Suzanne Collins’s “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” (Scholastic, $27.99), a return to the world of her blockbuster “Hunger Games” series. Set over 60 years before the events of that first novel, this latest installment looks at the origins of Coriolanus Snow, President of Panem and general big bad of the initial trilogy.

But what goes into the making of a man so brutally and single-mindedly devoted to the systemic dystopia that is Katniss Everdeen’s Panem? This book introduces us to a young man who desperately wants to be perceived a certain way by the world, who wants nothing so much as to be restored to what he deems his rightful place in society … and who uses a combination of aristocratic charm and subtle ruthlessness to try and achieve that goal.

The great Panem war between the Capitol and the Districts has been over for barely a decade. The streets of the Capitol are still littered with piles of rubble and lined with buildings whose bomb-blown scars have never been repaired.

This is the world where young Coriolanus Snow lives. He’s on the verge of graduation from the Academy, but his seemingly bright future is almost entirely a mirage. The once-great Snow family has fallen on hard times, having lost virtually all of their economic empire in the war. Coriolanus lives in a crumbling penthouse apartment – the last indicator of the family’s former status – with his grandmother and cousin. Snow’s greatest fear is that his situation will be found out by his peers.

To have any shot at going to university, Snow is going to have to earn a graduation prize. And he is among the best students, but will he be good enough? He simply doesn’t know.

However, opportunity arrives in the form of the 10th Hunger Games. In an effort to get the populace more engaged by the Games, officials – including Head Gamemaker Dr. Gaul and Academy administrator Dean Highbottom – have decided to, for the first time, establish a mentoring program. Essentially, each tribute will be paired with an Academy student who is tasked with assisting them in the run-up to the Games.

While Snow is initially insulted by his assigned tribute – the female from District 12 – he soon changes his mind when, during the reaping, the young lady named Lucy Gray Baird takes the microphone and sings a hauntingly beautiful folk song, captivating all who are watching across Panem.

Snow is determined to gain as much as he can from his association with Lucy Gray, even as he starts to feel a connection to her beyond mentor/mentee; his decisions – even the most self-serving ones – are perceived by many outsiders to be noble and almost altruistic. He wants the life he believes he deserves and is willing to say and do anything to achieve it. But will it be enough? Can he steer his songbird to victory? And if so, at what cost?

“The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” marks an interesting choice on Collins’s part. It’s a combination that you don’t often see in this sort of franchise fiction – a prequel focused on the villain as protagonist and their origins. We’re used to the good guys being the stars, particularly in the realm of YA fiction. One could argue that this new book is a bit more thematically sophisticated than the previous offerings, but ultimately, while the perspective is different, we’re still talking about teenagers forced to make adult decisions by a largely unfeeling system. It’s a bold maneuver in its way, pivoting as it does away from the iconic rebellious heroine of the original trilogy.

It is also a largely successful one.

On the surface, placing a teenaged Snow front and center seems almost incongruous, but when we dig into the book’s themes a little bit more, it starts making a good deal of sense. We already have the perspective of the districts and their rebellious desires – why not give us a look at the other side of that coin? Specifically, a look at someone whose suffering (such as it is) isn’t simply undone because theirs was ultimately the winning side.

While some of Snow’s grievances are certainly justified, many of them come down to an inherent elitism, an inability to conceive of a system that doesn’t feature him or someone like him at its top. That baked-in privilege is what drives him, that desire to be seen as somehow more than those around him. However, his intelligence and natural charm often create a significant divide between his inner motivations and the perception of those motivations by those around him. Even as we’re privy to the self-serving truths behind his actions, almost all of those around him project away his selfishness.

It’s wild, having such a character in the lead. There’s an engaging frustration to it – and I mean that in a good way. He makes ethical choices for unethical reasons and vice versa. Even with the biases inherent to knowing who he becomes, we still find ourselves rooting for Snow to find his way out of the shadows and into the light.

This generations-past Panem is also fascinating to experience, with Collins doing a fine job of capturing the still-raw wounds of a war whose consequences remain a constant presence in the lives of every citizen, Capitol and Districts alike. Getting a sense of the ramshackle origins of the Hunger Games themselves is key; it’s a chance to see the embryonic stages of the high-tech reality show spectacle that we saw in the first trilogy. These Games are decidedly lo-fi – and EXTREMELY nasty; learning about some of the (literally) game-changing elements adds a welcome layer.

Yes, “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is a bit denser, a bit heavier than previous installments. The narrative does get a little jagged in spots, with a tendency toward somewhat excessive chapter-ending cliffhangers. It’s not a perfect book by any stretch.

It is, however, quite a ripper of a read. Fans of the world that Collins has created will doubtless find much to like in this latest installment; it’s a chance to revisit and learn more about a place that has captured a generation of imaginations. All in all, a worthwhile endeavor – you might not have known you wanted a “Hunger Games” prequel, but you’ll be glad you got it. 

Last modified on Thursday, 21 May 2020 09:57

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