The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
Well, that was a thing.
Somehow I got it into my head this week that it would be neato to read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes at the same time as Dune Messiah. I don’t know what I was thinking because they’re both making my head hurt, though in different ways. I still have 136 pages to go in Dune Messiah, but at least now my brainspace isn’t preoccupied with whether Snow is going to go crazy and murder his girlfriend or not. (Spoiler alert: He does. Maybe.)
To recap, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the prequel to the Hunger Games trilogy, and relates the origin story of Coriolanus Snow, the future president of Panem. Snow starts off as a stellar Academy student on the cusp of graduation, but, while serving as a mentor in the 10th annual Hunger Games, starts suggesting enhancements to better engage audiences in the Capitol and the districts, most notably the tribute sponsor system. (Fun fact: I’d heard fan rumors that the Hunger Games prequel was going to be about Mags, the victor of the 11th Hunger Games and one of Katniss’s allies in the 75th Hunger Games, and was sorely disappointed to find out that it was in fact about Snow.) He accepts the mentor position in the hopes of winning a university scholarship, as he cannot afford tuition, but is outraged to find himself assigned to Lucy Gray Baird, the female tribute from District 12. Despite his initial doubts, he finds that Lucy Gray is feisty and not easily subdued, and falls in love with her while trying to keep her alive both before and during the Games. After the Games, circumstances quickly evolve beyond his control, and he starts on a downward spiral of murder and betrayal before finally getting onto the path that will make him the most powerful man in Panem.
I had a lot of problems with this book, all of them relating to Snow’s character and status as protagonist, which I complained about three days ago. I stood by those complaints then, and I stand by them now. I don’t know about you, but following an intensely problematic character for 517 pages makes me feel somehow tainted and unclean. To be clear, Snow’s character is problematic because Collins intended it to be problematic. He is a thoroughly despicable man. He is arrogant, vain, greedy, controlling, cowardly, and frail-minded. Even when helping people not of his immediate family, he is always thinking about what they can do for him in return. When faced with physical threats, he devolves quickly into a paranoid, gun-clutching mess. He unwillingly befriends Sejanus Plinth, a classmate and one of his fellow Games mentors, and pretends to regard him as a brother, but betrays him with hardly any compunction and gets him sent to the gallows, then allows Sejanus’s grief-stricken parents to adopt him as their new heir. The Plinths have no idea that Sejanus was executed based on Snow’s information, and they shower him with gifts and pay for everything he and his family need, which I find infuriating. Snow can’t even say he’s solely responsible for Lucy Gray’s popularity in the Capitol (even though he does say it), because she cultivated her image on her own and actually had to coach him a little bit. He would’ve died in a monkey cage if it hadn’t been for her advice.
I had initially thought that the reader was being asked to sympathize with Snow, but that isn’t entirely the case, which is fortunate because I have no sympathy for him whatsoever. Every time he seems like he might be capable of redeeming himself in some way, he goes and does something hateful and self-serving. I felt genuinely awful for Sejanus, a sweet, sensitive soul who apparently has no idea how to spot a manipulative, conniving asshole and considers Snow his best friend. This impression is cemented by Snow’s habit of pulling Sejanus out of trouble, though he does this only to avoid getting in trouble himself. Most of Snow’s decisions revolve around his own survival and advancement. This is a policy he follows to the letter until the very end, when he becomes convinced that Lucy Gray is trying to kill him and does his best to shoot her before she can. Despite his declarations of love and his desire to run away with her and start a new life far away from the Capitol and the districts, he turns against her with shocking speed and starts trying to annihilate her based on the flimsiest of thought processes. It’s unclear what her intentions actually were because he shoots first and asks questions never, and it is similarly unclear what becomes of her. Like Schrödinger’s cat, like the Lucy Gray in the Wordsworth ballad after which she was named, she is and is not alive, though I suppose she can reasonably be presumed dead by the events of The Hunger Games.
If we leave aside the issues with Snow’s role as protagonist and quasi-hero, the book is fine. It’s better than Mockingjay. That’s a super low bar, but it passed it. It was irritatingly difficult to put down. In the fine tradition set down by the original trilogy, it made me really, really hungry because the characters always seem to be eating amazing foods, even in District 12. (I’m sorry, but I’m a peasant and the fried baloney and potatoes sounded really good to me.) There were some fun callbacks to the original trilogy, such as the moment you realize the Flickermans have apparently cornered the Hunger Games host job. It’s not a book I would read over and over again, but it was interesting to see how the Games got their start before they turned into a full-blown reality show. I appreciated that Snow is never quite presented as hero material: though he gets into dangerous situations and comes out on top, it’s always with his own best interests in mind. His greatest weakness is his crippling paranoia, which inspires his worst impulses and ultimately drives him from the path of sympathy and redemption. His first thought is always for himself. He never gets too caught up in his concern for others, and Collins makes that clear. I was concerned that she might get swept up in romanticizing this earlier, slightly more innocent version of him, but she never does.
And yet, as glad as I was not to see him glorified, his general character still leaves me with one crucial question: Why did we need his story? Is it, as the interview in the back of the book indicates, a philosophical exploration of war theory and human conflict? Is it a YA-themed brawl between Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, dumbed down for a younger audience? Is it a reminder that a person who receives multiple chances to redeem him or herself may still make the wrong decision? Or is it more of a cautionary tale, a warning that things can get far, far worse if we forget the original intentions of democracy and allow an autocratic tyrant with no regard for human life to take the reins? It’s a little bit late for that, but thanks for the warning, Suzanne.
Of course, I can talk all I want but the book still got its hooks into me, because I have every intention of rereading the first two books and watching the inevitable movie. See y’all at the theater.