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Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes offers an origin story for everyone’s favourite evil-but-unequivocally-stylish dictator, President Snow. For the uninitiated, his achievements in the previous trilogy amount to mass murdering his citizens, losing control of his totalitarian state after a pretty solid 60 or so year run of oppression, smelling like roses, and being played by Donald Sutherland in the movie adaptation. In this book, however, he is simply Coriolanus, a young student in the early days of the war-ravaged Capitol, furnished only by the grandeur of his name and the ambition for wealth and glory. It all feels a bit anime, and in classic anime fashion he winds up getting involved in the Hunger Games, now in its 10th year with public interest and enthusiasm towards it waning. And even more anime than that, it is in this context that he meets our female protagonist, Lucy Gray Baird, a folk singer from District Twelve whom he has been given the challenge of mentoring. And then they fall in love, which causes all sorts of problems, yet none of this is particularly surprising because this is a Hunger Games book: Suzanne Collins’ fortune is founded on the mining of suffering, with particular regard to will-they-won’t-they-can-Gale-please-leave-I-hate-him love triangles. Don’t fix it, as they say, if it ain’t broke.

To briefly appraise the novel before we get into the meaty stuff: Collins’ prose is sparse and utilitarian, and every word serves a purpose. It is perhaps not beautiful, but it is practical, and it is a pleasure to read. It gives the book a rhythmic energy, building tension throughout the novel and creating a fantastic sense of unease. Collins has also done some masterful world building in here, leaving breadcrumb trails of lore tidbits that will leave both the casual fan and the fanatic appeased. I was particularly impressed by the ending; I spent most of the book dreading what horrible thing was going to occur, but as it built to a climax, I was satisfied that everything that needed to be resolved (or rather, made horrible) was resolved, and it was very exciting and VERY GOOD. That’s objectively, of course, because naturally content-wise it was grizzly and depressing. However, on the other hand, there are a lot of songs. Some of them are good, but some of them are very bad, and some of them, I’m convinced, are from Annie.

Anyhow, now, meaty stuff. So, the first thing that comes to mind, for me, is the consequence of writing a love story between a to-be dictator and a member of the oppressed under class. It’s obviously not going to end well, because he’s going to end up as President Snow, and since we have never heard of her before, we can assume that she is probably going to either die or be killed in some horrible way. Subsequently, it’s not an immediately pleasurably reading experience, as every word is so tinged with dread for the inevitable horrible demise that will strike both characters and their relationship. Indeed, this book was so depressing that even though it’s a young adult novel that clocks in at about 517 pages, it is much more akin in terms of an experience to reading something old, Russian, and double the length. Like a Tolstoy or a Chekhov where everyone dies or has an unhappy marriage and the main point is that modern society is not only a bore but also a plague. It’s that kind of vibe. I also just want to say, before I embark upon any of the big questions (what does it mean? why was it written? should we all be taking heed?), that the romance provided a really engaging emotional spine in an otherwise pretty bleak novel. It is the quintessential romance you might expect from a Hunger Games book, and though I pretended to roll my eyes and make loud cynical guffawing noises, in reality I want it to be turned into a liquid and fed directly into my veins through an IV. But aside from lightening the tone, what utility does this serve, and what point does this romance serve to make?

It’s been around a decade since the publication of the original trilogy. The movies have come and gone, and Suzanne Collins isn’t really, as far as I know, of the JK Rowling ilk where she’ll give out all of the secrets of the universe if someone asks her on twitter. So why now? There are two obvious answers. The first is that she a worshipper of the Canannite god of money, Mammon. We’re going to ignore that because that’s bullshit because everyone in our society is, we’re capitalists, we LOVE MONEY. The second is that a lot of time has passed since Mockingjay hit the shelves, and there have been a lot of dystopias that she has inspired since, and also the world has changed a lot since then (Trump, Brexit, wars, I grew up into a great mind and beauty, a recession somewhere, Trump, Coronavirus, Trump, TRUMP). I think it’s pretty clear that Suzanne has come back to have the final word.

The Hunger Games was borne out of the unlikely marriage of reality television and Iraq war coverage. It sought to make a point about our consumerist society and the commodification of suffering for entertainment. Is it fair to say then, that this was likely inspired by the Trump-some-wars-somewhere-probably-a-recession-Trump-present? We must examine this in the context of the world Collins has created. Fortunately, we do not live in that world. If we feel as though we have been failed by our states, we have the power to protest, to dissent, without having to fear for our lives. We have the choice to live as we please. In this respect we could never relate to Katniss or the people her world. I believe it was a bold and prescient move on the part of Collins to take this novel from the Capitol perspective, which might be perceived as being slightly more equivocal to the reader’s own experience.

Even more so, when it transpires towards the end of the novel that the crux of morality, as Collins describes it, comes from the act of personal choice. The world of Panem is created by the choices of men. The state in which we leave Panem is in the process of becoming a place to live in freedom and harmony with one another without fear. Coriolanus is surrounded by kindness, swaddled by it – from his cousin Tigris, from the Plinths, from Lucy Gray, and the Covey. But ultimately it is his choice to reject all of this kindness to satisfy his own ambitions that results in the world that we enter at the beginning of The Hunger Games. The moral that Collins is setting down in our laps by positioning the novel from the Capitol perspective, that of the privileged group, is that it is down to us, the reader, to ensure that when we make our choices, we must be kind. But if the idea of being lectured on morality by a young adult fiction author doesn’t appeal to you right now, worry not. If one of your trepidations about reading this novel is the forcing a laboured political point, throw that trepidation to the wind my friend, as it is pretty deeply hidden under layers of cynicism and an incredibly high quota of ‘yikes’ moments.

Overall, an enjoyable romp through a horrid totalitarian world with a moral for the current climate that is not only necessary, but positive.

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