I’m about to go off – The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Review

Brace yourselves, because I’m about to go off big time here because I’m bitter and salty as all get out!

Well…that was…something huh?  So I, like many of the bookish community, read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes in a ridiculously short amount of time considering it’s 517 pages. I even stayed up until 01:19 to finish it. Usually that’s a compliment to a book, but in this case I just didn’t want to spend any more time of my weekend reading it.

I also did a video review if you’d rather watch that – your choice!

That might sound overly harsh and that I hated the book. I didn’t. I’m just deeply, deeply disappointed. It definitely had its merits, but it fell flat for me and missed its mark completely. But I guess that’s the problem with revisiting a huge franchise over a decade after it initially finished. Add to that the unprecedented success of the franchise – both in book form and film form – and the pressure sure is on. Obviously whatever the outcome was going to be it would never be able to satisfy everyone. So I hope Susanne Collins wrote the book she wanted to write and not the book she thought we’d want because…damn…that’d be a bummer.

I’m sure there will be plenty of die hard, hard-core fans out there who will sing this books praises and love it regardless, but I’m also sure that there will be people who deeply loath it and pretend it never happened (The Cursed Child, anyone?). As for the rest of us, we’re in the group of ‘it’s not the book we wanted, but it’s the one we got’.  

I mean, Snow? SNOW?! Why Snow? Don’t get me wrong, I love a good villain origin story as much as the next gal, but Snow?! Why not the very first Hunger Games? Or Haymitch’s story? (I was SO hyped when I thought that’s what we were getting), or Mags? Or fucking any tribute we’ve previously been introduced to? Hell, even one centred on District 13 and how the rebels almost won just before they got nuked! Any of those would have been better. In my own useless opinion.

I am a massive fan of The Hunger Games – I love the books, they reignited my love of reading (as is the case with many people) and the films were great (for the most part…Mockingjay Pt2 I’m looking at you). So believe me when I say how much it pained me to anxiously and eagerly await this prequel, only to feel ‘meh’ about it.

Right, before I go into my review I want to issue a SPOILER WARNING effective both immediately and throughout the rest of the review. I don’t think I will be able to talk about how I feel about this book properly without mentioning specific parts of the plot or characters.

So there’s your warning. Only continue to read this review if you have either: read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes already, or don’t care about spoilers. You have been warned.

Here’s a really quick, bullet speed rundown of the plot, for context of my review:

18 year old Snow is at school, wanting to go to uni to provide for his cousin (Tigris) and his Grandmother because he’s poor by Capitol standards. The Hunger Games are not really watched by many, are a little dull and in danger of being cancelled. The Head Gamemaker enlists Snow’s class to be the first Mentors of the tributes and to bring fresh ideas to the games. Snow is paired with the District 12 girl, much to his despair. But she’s different. Lucy Gray wears a rainbow dress to her reaping, puts a snake down the dress of the Mayor’s daughter when her name is called and she sings a song at her reaping.  Snow uses this to make her seem special to the audience, as the more successful she is in the Games, the more successful he’ll be out of them.

Snow and his class suggest betting on the games and dropping food and water in to their tributes via drones. This is accepted. The tributes are kept in an empty monkey enclosure at the zoo before the Games. Snow continues to help make Lucy Gray seem interesting to the Capitol and he starts to develop feelings for her. There’s some drama and death before the Games that means a lot of the tributes and some of the Mentors aren’t even alive for the start.

During her time in the crappy arena (an abandoned sports arena) Lucy Gray hides and is helped by Snow via rat poison taken from the zoo prior to her entry and by Snow intervening with some muttations from the Capitol labs. She wins the Hunger Games and goes back to District 12. But Snow was caught cheating and is made a Peacekeeper as a punishment. He chooses District 12 because he loves Lucy Gray in his own possessive way. Eventually his classmate Sejanus follows in his footsteps because he feels guilty and wants to help the rebels really. He used to be District 2 but his family got rich after the war and his family bought their way into Capitol citizenship.

Anyway, Snow tries to make the best of things and have a life with Lucy Gray. But he’s not a fan of the lifestyle. It’s beneath him. Sejanus is revealed to be a traitor to the Capitol (with some help from Snow) and is executed as a traitor. Snow makes plans to run away with Lucy Gray after an unfortunate murdering incident of some rebels-in-hiding and the Mayor’s daughter (long story there, can’t be bothered). But the murder weapons are missing and he’s nervous about it, as he’s been accepted to become an officer-in-training due to his exceptional performance as a Peacekeeper and his exam results. But he chooses Lucy Gray. They get about an afternoon into their new life together as they pit-stop in an abandoned house on the outskirts of District 12. Snow accidently tips off Lucy Gray that he had a hand in Sejanus’s death and she runs away after he finds the guns used for the murder in the abandoned rebel house. He turns on Lucy Gray quickly and chases her into the woods. He employs the ‘spray and pray’ technique with a  gun and reckons he’s hit her as he hears a cry of pain in the woods. He leaves her to die after discarding the only thing that could be any real evidence to his involvement in the murders into the lake.

He wanders off back to 12 to get ready to be transferred to District 2 to be an officer. However the hovercraft drops him off in the Capitol. Confused, Snow realises that the Head Gamemaker had planned his summer as a Peacekeeper on purpose to give him a taste of the districts. She then takes him under his wing to become her personal apprentice for the Games and beyond. End of story.

Ta dah. Wonderful right? Ok, back to the actual review!

Ok, let me go into my biggest gripe about the book (other than who it’s about, obviously).

517 pages = 2 months of time in the book. Let me say that again: we spend 517 pages and we only get a time span of 2 goddamn months! When I first heard that we were getting a story on how Snow (I’m not typing out Coriolanus every time I wanna reference him, so Snow it is) rose to power, I expected a story that jumped forward in time a few years every now and then, so we got child/teenager Snow, 20’s-30’s Snow, maybe jump to 40s-50s Snow. Ya know, catch us up to the 74th Hunger Games. Instead I got 2 months of an 18 year old Snow. What?!

Ok, now I’ve got my incoherent rant out of the way, let me try and tackle ‘sections’ of the book in a more articulate manner (no promises).

Let me start with characters. We follow one main character really, Snow, but we do get a lot of attention on Lucy Gray, the District 12 tribute for the 10th Hunger Games. Let’s start with Lucy Gray. She’s unusual, and special. Like every YA heroine we’ve had for the past…ALWAYS! Don’t get me wrong, she was an interesting character to spend time with, but this quirky female YA lead had a touch too much of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl vibe for me.

I thought Lucy Gray was a sympathetic character at times, and she proved herself to be very smart in some instances and yet very stupid/naïve in others and it was a fair bit jarring. But as she’s the actual tribute it meant we got some Hunger Games action, but it wasn’t anything like Katniss. Lucy Gray spent most of her time either singing or hiding.

Snow on the other hand – now he’s a mentor. One of the fist mentors. Granted the Games aren’t as high-tech as we’re used to, but a view into a mentor’s life could have been really good. I know we got Haymitch a little bit in The Hunger Games but we really could have gotten a way more in-depth view of the Games from a mentor’s perspective with Snow. But in my eyes it was an opportunity wasted.

I also didn’t particularly enjoy spending time with Snow. Obviously we know who and what he turns into, so it’s hard to sympathise with him even when we are supposed to. Plus, any and all danger that he is ever in…we already know the outcome…he lives. So there’s no suspense. He also wasn’t the kind of villain I wanted.

I wanted him to be kinda like Tom Riddle when we see Voldemort’s past. Tom Riddle wasn’t a nice guy and then something happened and he turned evil. He was always evil and the best thing about his character was that he knew, and we got to watch him charm the people around him into getting where he wanted to be. That’s what I wanted for Snow. I just wanted to watch an evil bastard be an evil bastard as a young adult and enjoy the evilness and love to hate him.

But instead I got to watch a kinda corrupt, kinda smarmy, kinda elitist guy kinda sympathise with the Tributes and the Districts, but kinda not be sure what he wants to do about it, go through a summer. And although I’m grateful that we didn’t get a ‘snap’ moment where one thing goes wrong and it turns him evil, I don’t fully buy what we got either. Snow is shown to make lots of little decisions that lead him into bigger ones, all of which were self-serving. So there wasn’t’ really much character growth. Urgh.

Ok, time to move on to the plot. The good points: we got the Games, we got a bit of Capitol life, we got a bit of District life. The bad, well, like I said earlier, the whole book was only 2 months’ time. So we really didn’t get to develop much of the plot except for the weeks immediately before, during and after the Hunger Games. So…that sucked. But the things that happened during that 2 month plot-line? Weak, poorly executed and genuinely unbelievable at times. Some of the character decisions just didn’t seem to make sense, or were inconsistent with previously shown character behaviour.

And the conveniences! OMG the plot armour is thick with this one! I just thought the whole thing was weak over all. I don’t mind the odd convenience here or there, but jeez, this was like slotting puzzle pieces together. Not a difficult 1000 piece jelly bean puzzle, one of those 12 piece Disney Princess ones.

Ok, and let me use another ‘C’ word that bothered me, as I’ve already talked about conveniences: Call-backs. Don’t get me wrong, I knew there had to be some call-backs to the original trilogy and things/characters from them. I was actually looking forward to seeing a few clever little drops here and there to put a sly ‘I know all about that’ smile on my face.

Instead I got so many rehashed ideas or items or names that it got to feel too much and derivative (even though it’s her own work!) and it just seemed to lack originality.

Here’s some examples. I expected Avox’s, mockingjays and some mentions of surnames from families we might know – eg Snow (obviously) and Heavensbee. But we also got Flickerman – in the same profession no less!

Also, slightly off topic but on topic for names…Snow had a nickname. Tel me, if you were going to shorten Coriolanus (cos why wouldn’t you?!) you’d chose Corey, or Core or something, right? Nope. In this book he’s Coryo. Now I dunno if it’s a pronunciation thing cos of my accent, but I say ‘core-yo’ in my head when I see that. If I was supposed to say ‘Core-ee-oh’ in my head that failed. So every time I saw Coryo I cringed.

But back to the call-backs. We had so many references to Snow’s lips, harking back to the whole poison-and-blood-on-his-lips thing from the original trilogy. Even the first sentence of the book mentions his lips! “Coriolanus released the fistful of cabbage into the pot of boiling water and swore that one day it would never pass his lips again.”

I rolled my eyes when he got the District 12 girl, because of course he did. There was mention of lamb stew with plums (really?! Like, 64 years before Katniss eats it?) Lucy Gray even digs up some Katniss roots in front of him in District 12. Honestly, if my eyes rolled any more through half of these I’d be scared they’d get stuck in my head.

One last thing I really didn’t like – there was so much bloody singing in this book! Omg! And not just mentions of it, we got full godamn lyrics. Remember in the old days when you’d buy an album on a CD (fuck I’m old) and there’d be lyrics in the artwork booklet? That’s what this was like!

Okay I’ve shat on this book long enough – there were actually things that I liked. So let me tell you about some of them.

As with the original trilogy, I really, really like Suzanne Collins’s writing style. She has an excellent quality to her writing that is both emotive and complex in places, yet simple and compelling enough to make you turn the page – even though I have to admit I was bored reading this book it had nothing to do with her writing. There were some really strong scenes, particularly the parading and treatment of the dead Tribute’s bodies and some of the attacks and lab scenes.

Speaking of lab scenes, I really enjoyed getting some information on early Mutts in development and seeing the process behind them. We didn’t get a lot, but what we got I enjoyed.

I also really appreciated the parallels of Snow’s demise in Mockingjay with some of the scenes in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. There are two scenes, one inside a cargo truck and once inside a zoo exhibit, where Snow is surrounded by District citizens who begin to close-in to kill him. There’s also a seen where Snow ends up in the arena (not as exciting as it sounds) and is chased by District citizens (Tributes) trying to kill him. I like how these scenes of District Citizens coming together to overwhelm Snow mirrors his actual death, and the fact that he came so close to it playing out here was quite a fun parallel to draw.

Perhaps my absolutely favourite part of the book though is a moment like I mentioned earlier. I got an ‘ahh!’ moment where a puzzle piece slotted into place and solidified some lore for me. It’s an insignificant puzzle piece in the grand scheme of things, but I thought it was a fun and beautiful way to tie in some District 12 lore and explain something from the later books and films.

We get the origin of The Hanging Tree song that Katniss sings. We not only get to see/read/hear it performed for the first time, but we get to connect it to the characters that we’ve met and know exactly what the song is about – which is pretty awesome in my eyes. Plus it’s a nice call-back done right and it’s just really cool to see something that would legit last a 64 year time difference – not fucking lamb stew with plums.

I have plenty more thoughts on The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, but I think I should probably call it there, I think this may very well be my longest review so far!

Here are some final thoughts of mine:

We got a prequel, but did we need it?
Did we really get any more of an understanding? Eh not really, common sense would tell us that the first decade or 2 of the Hunger Games after the war wouldn’t be glitz and glamour because they are rebuilding the country.
Did we get any new or real insight into any characters? No. Did we get any new District knowledge? No. But did we get an explanation of that god-awful title? Yes. Urgh.
Was it necessary? No. Not at all.

I’m gonna use a sentence from earlier on in my review to give my ultimate one sentence summary of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: ‘it’s not the book we wanted, but it’s the one we got’.  

***

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