Fans of the Hunger Games trilogy will remember that the books are set in a future America, Panem, whose capital extorts a terrible annual tribute from the 12 Districts it rules. Adolescents are chosen to fight each other to the death in a televised competition. There is only one survivor.
In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Collins shows us the early years of this grim contest. We follow the backstory of Coriolanus Snow, looking closely into how the corrupting influences in society shape the characters we know and hate.
The one word I would use to describe the teenage Coriolanus Snow is : hunger. The once-powerful Snows live a precarious existence in a penthouse apartment, concealing their poverty from the rest of the city’s aristocracy. Out of all the things that Snow worries about, food is his primary concern. It overshadows everything else. You can tell when food is important to Snow when he agonizes over how quickly to eat his food and how big of a portion he should eat in front of his peers. At other times, when he serves as a Peacemaker and food is provided in regular intervals, food is given a passive glance. I found this interesting because it shows how the most basic human necessity can drive a person, a child, no less, to do unspeakable things.
Lucy Gray Baird, the eccentric vagabond singer who has been picked as a tribute from District 12, satisfies a different type of hunger for Coriolanus. Yes, he sees her victory as a chance to gain glory back for his family name but there is something else. He describes her over and over as “his girl,” and there are numerous moments when you see Snow on the brink of violence when he feels that his “possession” might be taken away.
Like the trilogy, Collins brings forward the power of media. Snow and his fellow mentors are always thinking about how they look on screen, how their actions will be judged. Nefarious tactics are put into play without question; deaths are barely registered. It is a frightening view of adolescence that accepts constant surveillance as a norm. Meanwhile, his teacher, the borderline insane Dr Gaul, is conducting genetic experiments that are exploitative, vicious, and mercenary.
Like Katniss Everdeen, Coriolanus knows what it’s like to feel hungry but unlike Katniss, he is ruthless and political in his decisions. Does he regret what he did to his gentle friend, Sejanus? His emotional breakdown suggests so but his mind easily convinces him that his friend was on a self-destructive path to begin with. Snow says in a chilling way that in actuality, he just gave him more time, having saved his friend in the arena.
Readers of A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes will walk away with a different understanding of what evil is. They will also appreciate the reference and lore about the mockingjays, the history of the Capitol and how friendships can easily be betrayed for the sake of authority.