The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Cover of Suzanne Collins' book "The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes"

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Book Review

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes revisits the world of Panem 64 years before the events of The Hunger Games, starting on the morning of the reaping of the Tenth Hunger Games.

Plot Summary

Sixty-four years before the venomous President Snow clashed with a heroic young woman named Katniss Everdeen, young Coriolanus Snow was just a guy struggling to maintain his once-exalted surname while hiding the fact that his family is penniless. Coriolanus, whom his friends call Coryo, has been living with his eccentric, rose-growing grandmother and his devoted cousin, Tigris, after having lost his parents in the devastation of the district-assault on the Capitol.

That war was prolonged and deadly. Parts of the great Capitol still remain in ruins. And Coryo can, even now, barely remember what it felt like to have a full belly. In fact, memories of devastation and desperation—such as seeing a starving neighbor carve a leg from a corpse in the street for sustenance—are much more apt to come to the 18-year-old’s mind.

This year is the 10th annual Hunger Games, a district-punishing contest that takes place in a bombed out old stadium. The conquered districts are each required to send two young Tributes to battle to the death in front of the nation of Panem. It’s an event designed to remind the vanquished that war demands an ongoing price. But frankly, even in the Capitol few people watch or care about it at this point. To change that lackluster impression, the creepy and sadistic head Gamemaker, Volumnia Gaul, begins dreaming up some punishing in-game surprises—along with suggesting that leading students from the local Academy be paired with Tributes as “mentors.”

Coryo, desperate to excel at the Academy and hopefully land an eventual position that might keep his family afloat, jumps at the chance. One thing the beleaguered youth has going for him is his elitist charm. He can use his fake smiles and well-practiced intellectual banter to an advantage in front of the camera. But even that slight edge seems empty once Coryo gets a look at his assigned Tribute from District 12. She’s a starving, traveling vagabond named Lucy Gray Baird who’s but a wisp of a teen. And she presents no physical threat compared to the larger males in the Tribute group.

However, Lucy Gray has one thing going for her: She’s a performer. If Coryo can draw attention to her beautiful voice, pretty smile and colorful flair, if he can manipulate things to actually get the public to like her, if he can buff the girl’s metal into something golden, they might have a chance to make a difference. He might well help her stay alive just long enough to earn him some recognition and some points toward the scholarship he so longs for.

But as he connects with the young woman, gets to know her, as he sees her earnest heart and street savvy smarts, Coryo also begins to notice something special in Lucy Gray. Somehow, this young woman begins to break through even Coryo’s polished veneer. She disarms him. She makes him … care. And soon, Coryo can’t help but hope that together they might miraculously find a way to an impossible victory in the Games.

Is it feasible that Coriolanus Snow, a guy who’s been forced by his circumstances to survive through manipulation and deceit, could find something akin to love? Something like happiness? It all comes down to one scared girl, dancing and singing on a knife-blade’s edge.

Christian Beliefs

None.

Other Belief Systems

It could be said that the original Hunger Games books are something of a collective allegory about the torments of youth—fictional stories that compare the horror show of teens killing each other in an arena to the terrible bullies, hypocrisy and adult pressures that kids face in our very real world. The series symbolically embodies the adolescent trials and sufferings that are thrust upon teens through no fault of their own.

This prequel, however, takes a different tack. It makes the original book’s villain into the protagonist, for one thing. It doesn’t make him a hero, but author Suzanne Collins helps nudge us toward rooting for him and hoping that he might turn out good. And in that way, we start to understand how he’s pushed, forced and shaped into the monstrous person he eventually becomes.

But this tale isn’t just a “nature versus nurture” examination. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is primarily interested in opportunities given and choices made. We see the impact that evil choices have: both those that the world makes around us and those selfish, foul choices that we make ourselves.

As such, this prequel is much more focused on philosophy than on allegory. It looks at how we live our lives in a series of countless small choices, tiny decisions that ultimately contribute to much bigger ones. Our choices shape who we become and who we are, the book tells us.

 

Authority Roles

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes also looks closely at the tension between chaos and control in society. And it raises questions that seem very pertinent to current cultural clashes we see happening in our world. What is the tipping point between a controlling authority and chaos in the streets, this story asks? Is mankind essentially good or evil at the core? Will we make deadly choices if not kept in check? And what does a humane application of control even look like? All significant concepts for readers to ponder.

Of course, parents of younger readers, whom this book is ostensibly aimed at, must take into account that this is still a book primarily focused on the death of teens in an arena-like setting.

Profanity & Violence

No foul language here. But as the Hunger Games tournament plays out, there are numerous young people killed by everything from slashing weapon attacks to applied poisons, animal attacks, rabies infections, explosions and hangings. And most of that deadliness is put on TV for public entertainment. The literary descriptions of these deaths are not overly graphic, but the deaths can be painful and bloody, corpses pile up on an open field, and the loss of even minor characters we’ve come to know can be emotionally jarring.

The Capitol’s choice to have children battle to the death is explained in this novel, too. “Because we credit them with innocence. And if even the most innocent among us turn to killers in the Hunger Games, what does that say? That our essential nature is violent,” Coryo declares.

Sexual Content

Coryo and Lucy Gray develop a relationship that graduates from small intimate touches to embracing and kissing. There are some small mentions of same-sex couples and attraction.

Discussion Topics

Is violence in a book different from violent images depicted on a movie screen? Why or why not? Can violence be used to illustrate a point about the world we live in? How far should it go? How did you feel about the deaths in this book? Is there a place for law- and rules-enforcement in our society? Are there laws that must be obeyed? Where is that balancing point between enforcement for social good and enforcement that crosses a line into abuse?

Do you think we shape our lives, our destiny, by the choices we make? What about God’s hand in shaping our lives? Do you think we can be destined to be good or to be evil? What choices did Coryo make that most influenced his life? Was there a turning point where his life could have gone another way? Why did he choose what he did? Deep down, are we essentially good or bad?

What do we do about a government, a business, a school or individuals that overstep their authority? What’s the best way to stand against something bad or harmful in our world? What’s our responsibility? How far should we go? Can you think of things in our world that could change for the better? What do you do about bad things that you don’t have the power to change? What is God’s role when it comes to things like that? Do you think He allows bad things to happen? Why?

When you finished this book, how did it leave you feeling?

Additional Comments

Manipulation of others is a common thread throughout the story, and government excesses and violent misuses of power are a constant.

You can request a review of a title you can’t find at [email protected].

Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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