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Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Mere months ago, it was announced that the highly, highly anticipated prequel to The Hunger Games was to star none other than the prick that (basically) started them: President Snow.


I had a few feelings about this. Disappointment was one of them. And I wasn’t alone. The internet, in a rare (!) move, turned divisive: some sad they were not going to be in for the treat of revisiting favourite characters and beloved themes; some fuming over the prospect of taking a deep dive into the POV of a despicable baddie; others twirling their pretentious moustaches and claiming to be above it all (“Honestly, am I the only one looking forward to an expertly crafted villain story, especially in a time of such socio-economic unrest in this country – surely we should relish the opportunity to walk a mile in the shoes of a genocidal fascist? You know, to better ourselves or something?”)

Good grief, Barbara, jog the fuck on.

There is nothing wrong with a decent-to-villainy story, but if you’re walking into a pre-established fanbase brandishing a narrative that’s the antithesis of the original trilogy … you’re gonna get some looks.

Yes, I was gutted. The previous books are a classic ‘little guy’ squaring up to ‘the man’; a brilliantly-written story of average people rising up and beating their oppressors. The Hunger Games was a massive inspiration for my generation and others, and in the year of our Lord 2020, God knows I was eager for another slice of that pie. I had less than zero desire to read about the early “heroic” days of the most poisonous villain in modern literature. And did I carry my bias with me as I picked up my kindle on release day? Yes. But did I also remember how much I loved Suzanne Collins as a writer and trusted her to do a good job anyway, as I settled myself down and started live-tweeting my read? Eh, just about.

Then Collins began with five epigraphs. Yes. Five. Another … bold choice.
And my doubt started to grow.
And then I was attacked by an onslaught of filler verbs which I was absolutely not expecting, and I am not ashamed to admit I was a little triggered.
My doubt grew some more.

By the end of chapter one, I was already playing a fun game of Count the Adjectives, while the other side of my brain was begging me not to judge Collins for her continuous infodump of a backstory.
By the end of chapter two, I was cringing so hard I genuinely started to believe this book had been ghostwritten by a less talented author. This couldn’t be the work of my beloved Suzanne Collins – the quality deficit was, quite frankly, shocking.

Let’s unpack.

Coriolanus Snow (another choice) is a young and ambitious student hoping to be picked as a mentor for the upcoming 10th annual Hunger Games. His hope is to shake himself free of the hardships of the past and improve his social status, not to mention earn some damn cash. He and his family have been dirt poor since the war, and goddamn does he like to remind everyone about it. I can’t tell you how many times the guy brought up the war (because I stopped counting) but let me tell you: uncle Albert would be proud of the numbers. By chapter three, I almost had to laugh at the absurdity. All it took was a character so something as mundane as pour a drink and Snow would just fall into a full-on PTSD flashback.

I recognise that this book was likely written to give fans the world-building I do not recall them asking for, and obvious fan-service aside I think it does a decent job of fleshing out the history of Panem and throwing the audience some interesting tidbits. However, there is an art to how both backstory and world-building are carefully spoon-fed to the reader, and Collins’ approach just made me feel like I was being fattened up for my foie gras.

So Snow is chosen as the mentor to – wouldn’t you know it – the district 12 tribute, a young lady called Lucy Gray. Yet another choice, relegating the lead female character and *spoiler!* eventual victor of the 10th Hunger Games into nothing more than a love interest with very little personality other than an annoying habit of singing far too often. Lucy’s potential victory becomes deeply-entwined with Snow’s own, and their relationship is a discomfiting mix of romantic feelings and him using her to achieve his own means.

Now, I’m fully on board with the premise, but for the life of me I could not tell you if the decent-into-villainy was successfully executed because the whole thing was overshadowed by 600 pages of piss-poor writing.

For your pleasure, I shall now list my grievances:

  • Snow never shuts up about how much he hates cabbages. Why does he never shut up about how much he hates cabbages?
  • On that note, please shut up about the damn war!
  • The fact that basically 100 pages of a 600pp novel are nothing but song lyrics is a shameless display of arrogance.
  • You’re not even that good at poetry, Suzanne.
  • This is how traumatic the war was for Snow, you guys. He was *abused*. No word of a lie: some dickhead stole his cabbage.

    • But it should be fine ‘cuz I don’t know if you know this but Snow hates cabbages. Can’t stand ’em.
    • For the love of God, who was your editor? Why the abundance of filler verbs? “He thought” appears 260 times.
    • “Snow lands on top” is your family fucking mantra? Is that organically-sourced cringe, Suzanne?
    • Call me crazy, but as this is a book that centres around the 10th Hunger Games, I was kinda looking forward to experiencing the 10th Hunger Games.
    • I never would have expected Suzanne Collins of all people to go pro with distancing writing. Snow’s mentee literally wins the Hunger Games and his singular reaction is “Right now, he felt invincible.”

Still somewhat convinced the story was written by someone else, I actually dug up my old copy of The Hunger Games to compare prose. Yes, I was that deep into my conspiracy theory. After a bit of Sherlocking, I did end up feeling less sure in my conviction, but I was reminded that Collins wrote the original trilogy in first person, which worked excellently. For some reason she chose to shrug off a technique she excels at and opted for third person. And she very clearly cannot pull it off. Not in the slightest.

TL;DR: I clocked out. Once one of the most engaging trilogies to grace the YA shelves, this new addition to the Hunger Games saga was utterly disappointing. I couldn’t tell you its positive points or what it was trying to achieve – in the end, anything decent was overshadowed by the horrendous writing and poor narrative choices. Considering we all know what Suzanne Collins is capable of, A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is simply not good enough.


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