It’s a yikes from me.
Did the world really need The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes?
I think not.
Full of unnecessary exposition and weighed down by self-indulgent fanservice, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a train-wreck of a novel. The story lacks rhyme or reason, things happen only to advance the plot (regardless of whether they make sense because what is even logic?), there are no stakes (Coriolanus having to eat cabbage soup and not being able to pay taxes are hardly sources of tension), the characters are ridiculous and one-dimensional, frequently the writing veers into the ludicrous, and the author doesn’t trust her readers to reach obvious conclusions by themselves.
Having recently re-read the Hunger Games trilogy, I was reminded of how good a writer Collins is.
One of the strengths in THG series lies in Katniss’ first person narration which brings immediacy and urgency to her story. In THG Collins’ exploration of the ethics of violence and the conflict between survival and sacrifice struck me as being both nuanced and intelligent. There was also a certain ambiguity that allowed, nay encouraged, readers freedom of interpretation.
Which begs the question…Collins, what happened?
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes may be the prequel to THG trilogy, but it’s an altogether different beast. Which would have been fine by me if it had been ‘different but good’. What we have instead here are simplified discussions about human nature (are we inherently bad? Do our circumstances shape who we are ? Are we responsible for what we do in order to survive?), an unconvincing story that is dragged-out for 500+ pages and is populated by goofy characters.
The novel strives for depth, yet its attempts to address the nature/nurture question and other moral quandaries result in a clumsy and overt parable that is leagues from being a satisfying or insightful philosophical inquiry into human nature. An example of this would when Dr. Gaul assigns Coriolanus Snow and other mentors homework along the lines of: “Write me an essay on everything attractive about war.”
What follows is a predictable and cringe-y scene in which they express their different opinions (shocking I know). Was that the only way to include a discussion on the ‘positives’ of war? It seemed a desperate, and rather pathetic, attempt to throw into the story some ‘serious’ material. Just because the characters who are talking about these things have ancient-Roman-sounding names that doesn’t make their conversations any more meaningful or thought-provoking.
Not only does the character of Dr. Gaul exist to tick the ‘mad scientist’ box (I will get to her in due time) but she’s also there so she can explicitly ask characters ‘challenging’ questions regarding their moral and political tenets. So subversive and illuminating is she that she says things such as: “Who are human beings? Because who we are determines the type of governing we need” and “What happened in the arena? That’s humanity undressed. The tributes. And you, too. How quickly civilization disappears.”
We also have characters like Sejanus Plinth who although District-born has spent the last few years in the Capital, and he comes out with: “You’ve no right to starve people, to punish them for no reason. No right to take away their life and freedom.”. Did this guy just suddenly realised what kind of world he lives in? After years of Hunger Games he’s like ‘nah, that’s wrong. Humans should be free.’ (as if he doesn’t know that his words will have consequences?).
Away with Plato. Move aside Nietzsche. Sontag? Get out of here. There is a new philosopher in town.
Corny philosophising aside, the writing was weighed down by obvious statements which made the characters seem rather simplistic. Worst still we have cheesy gems such as “you’re mine and I’m yours. It’s written in the stars”, “although he didn’t believe in it, he tried to channel her telepathically. Let me help, Lucy Gray”, “The cabbage began to boil, filling the kitchen with the smell of poverty. ”
What in the world? I’m supposed to take this seriously?
The third person narration didn’t do the novel any favours. Most of Coriolanus’ thoughts and feelings aren’t articulated so that his character is given no new depths. Collins’ shies away from portraying him as a truly morally corrupt yet self-delusional person, making him into a not very convincing ‘he’s not that bad’ kind of guy. He’s an orphan who is tired of eating cabbage soup and not having money. Boo-hoo. His personality is just so tepid…he’s sort of ambitious, sort of a liar, a ‘sort of’ kind of person. Look, I wasn’t expecting the next Ripley or Humbert Humbert but Coriolanus is such a non-entity. While the narrative makes it seem as if he’s this cunning and charming guy, Coriolanus’ no Machiavelli. His elitist views are exaggeratedly rendered, so much so that they make him into a caricature of the contemptuous heir. Even those scenes in his family apartment or the ones where he’s with Tigris or Lucy Gray did not make Coriolanus any more believable or sympathetic. His ‘arc’ as such was merely motivated by his desire for wealth. As the descendant of a powerful yet crumbling Aristocratic family he believes he’s entitled to more than just cabbage soup for dinner. And of course, he hates Sejanus because ‘new money’.
From the first chapters characters are classifies as either good or bad. Throughout the course of 500+ pages they don’t change. Their thin personalities remain fixed.
Because of this the cast of characters is entirely forgettable. Although their names may appear on a page, their personalities remain largely non-existent. Coriolanus’ fellow students and mentors….did they even possess an individuality ? With the exception of holier than holier-than-thou Sejanus, these ill-defined Academy kids soon morphed with one another. What they say or do matters very little. They are mere accessories to Coriolanus’ story (we get it, although they have been indoctrinated to believe that the Districts are scum, they are not entirely entirely desensitised to violence or cruelty).
Lucy Gray was just so ridiculous. She seems one of the few random characters to have a normal name, and yet there was something comical about the way a ‘distressed’ Coriolanus would shout out her name. While the narrative did seem now and again aware that she was treated as an object, the way she’s depicted seems to corroborate this. She just didn’t convince me as an actual human being. At times she seemed a twelve year old Marie Sue, at times she seemed to have walked off the stage of a musical, and yet we are meant to find her intriguing?
The adult characters are unintentionally funny. From the ‘deranged’ Dr. Gaul (who speaks only in cliches and is not at all intimidating) to Dean Highbottom (whose surname merely brought to mind Neville Longbottom) who for some reason I don’t care enough about doesn’t like Coriolanus. These two, similarly to the other characters, do not leave their assigned roles (in this case ‘the mad scientist’ and ‘the bitter guy who for reasons holds a grudge against the protagonist’).
The characters in this novel are clownish. They have wannabe-Roman names, they speak in clichés and come out with uninspired maxims.
The world-building relies on readers having read THG. Which is weird given that this is not a sequel.
Panem is a dictatorship because reasons.
The novel also has a weak sense of place. The Capitol is barely delineated. The Academy is a building, Coriolanus lives in an apartment, and the Hunger Games take place in an arena. The architecture of these places is obviously irrelevant. Who even cares about descriptions of the characters and their environment? (I do).
Minor spoilers ahead
One of the first things that did not seem very rational was that the Capitol assigned the tributes to eighteen-year olds. Sure, the childhoods of these Academy students were marred by the war, but in comparison to the tributes, they’ve led a fairly privileged existence. But however rich their education may be, they still lack experience. They have little insight into the entertainment industry and just because they’ve discussed war strategies doesn’t mean that they could give any useful battle tactics. One thing is theory, the other one is practice. Yet, we are supposed to believe that the powers that be
decided that this particular group of students will mentor the tributes for the upcoming Hunger Games. The reason for this ‘mentorship’ is to make the Hunger Games more popular, garner some extra views or I don’t know. To me this seems an ill-conceived plan.
Anyway, let’s go along with it: mentor=more entertaining Hunger Games. Okay, so why am I meant to believe that the same people who are working extra hard to make the Hunger Games more interesting would let the tributes starve for a few days in a zoo cage? So they can collapse and die as soon as they enter the arena? Why even bother with the mentors then?! It was quite clear that the only reason why the tributes end up in a zoo cage is to remind us readers that to the ‘civilised’ citizens of the Capitol, District people are less than ‘animals’.
There were so many scenes like this. They did not make sense but they are theatrical. Characters are attacked, killed, and or tortured for effect. For all she writes about violence and human nature, Collins’ will often sacrifice believability for exaggeration. The whole thing with Dr. Gaul and her snakes was laughable. She’s such a crudely drawn figure that it was impossible to feel intimidated by her actions. The violence in this novel seems closer to that of splatter film.
The Hunger Games themselves are not only boring but they are described in a yawn-inducing way. The games section reminded of how in THG films they occasionally showed the game makers watching Katniss to make up for the fact that in the book we had Katniss’ narration to fill the moments of ‘quiet’. There was something so impersonal about these Hunger Games that I really did not care to see the way they would unfold (we know who is going to win anyway).
Shockingly enough, I struggled to finish this novel and ended up skimming a few pages in the final section. I’m baffled. What is this mess? What was it trying to achieve? It adds nothing to the THG. Coriolanus is not nuanced nor is he believable. If anything he seems a very different shade of evil to that of President Snow. We still don’t know much about the war. We get it, the Capitol suffered at the hands of the ‘rebels’. Collins’ tries to make this particular Hunger Games more significant by making characters come up with ideas that will be implemented in the following Hunger Games (like the sponsors or whatnot). For some reason Collins’ has to ‘foreshadow’ later events or can’t help but to reference mockingjays (“the show’s not over until the mockingjay sings”) and ‘the hanging tree’ song. What was the point in Tigris? She had a small cameo in the …why try to make her ‘important’? Especially since her role in this prequel in pretty irrelevant.
With so many pages did we really need to have passages in which earlier conversations reappear in italics? Why not trust that your readers will be able to remember what Coriolanus is referring to?
Last but not least: I am so done with the ‘muttations’. They were the weakest aspect of THG trilogy and to dedicate so much page time to them is just…
Moral of the story: approach prequels with caution.
My rating: ★✰✰✰✰ 1 star