A bastard called Snow
For both my lady and me, the hype surrounding The Hunger Games trilogy slightly put us off reading it. For my part, I only bothered when I was busy with an intensive singing course and needed some light distraction, which is what I believed The Hunger Games would be; something low on serious characters or ideas, and high on action and emotion, fun but ultimately forgettable. I found, of course, that my assumptions were completely wrong!
So when it came to picking up the series' prequel, the life story of one of its main villains no less, we were honestly not sure what to expect, since prequels, and villain backstories are notoriously difficult to get right. Yet again however, Collins gave us a pleasant; or at least, disturbingly compelling, surprise, creating not only a complex and gripping story, but one which in some ways, even surpasses the original trilogy.
The once proud house of Snow has fallen on hard times. Following the Capitol's devastating war with the District rebellion, Coriolanus Snow and his cousin Tigris have struggled for survival, often on the edge of starvation, desperately trying to cling to what pride and dignity they have left. Through charm, wit and dedicated climbing of the social ladder, 18 year old Coriolanus Snow has landed a place at the Academy, the finest educational institution in the Capitol, he knows if he can graduate and go on to the university, he has the chance of securing a well paid enough position to provide for his cousin and elderly grandmam, and regain the Snow family the respect they deserve. However, his final assignment is not an easy one. In an effort to bolster interest in the tenth annual Hunger Games, 24 academy students are each assigned as mentors to one of the district tributes. Coriolanus finds himself assigned the least of the tributes, the girl from District 12; a seeming insult. Yet, as Lucy Gray Baird makes an explosive entrance during her reaping, Coriolanus senses a way to turn this insult into an opportunity. As the time of the games grows closer, Coriolanus finds himself strangely drawn to Lucy Gray, desiring her survival for reasons other than his own career advancement. Lucy's survival seems unlikely however; even before she enters the arena, since the Capitol sees the tributes as less than human, and even if she makes it to the games, how can she survive in a place where all morals fall away, a place where; as the sadistic game designer Doctor Gaul puts it, true human nature is revealed, especially the nature of Coriolanus Snow.
One very simple reason why The Hunger Games trilogy made such a huge impression, is that Collins has a gift for just grabbing hold of your attention and not letting it go. Even though here, she uses a more standard third person past tense style, rather than the first person present of the main trilogy, all of the things that made Collins' books so just plain readable are back in force. A gift for spare descriptions, which still gets you in touch with the world and her protagonists' place in it, the ability to convey a lot of information naturalistically through a single point of view, an instantly recognisable secondary cast, and a gift for exact gauging of tension that gives the books a steady, driving pace. Indeed, my lady and I read the entire sixteen hours in the course of three days, just as we had previously reread the original trilogy together over one long weekend.
Of course, style is nothing without world or characters, and it's in the character of Snow that Collins really excels.
Making prequels with a main series villain as the protagonist is notoriously hard to pull off. After all, if the villain is a completely unsympathetic character, how can a story about how they get where they are hold a reader's interest. On the other hand, if the villain is too sympathetic, then their traumatic drop into villainy ends up feeling trite and unsatisfying; like for example going from "I'm afraid my pregnant wife might die", straight to "Yes of course, I'll slaughter hundreds of children!" It also didn't help that though President Snow had served as a distillation of all of the Capitol's evils into one rosy package for Katniss to aim her hatred (and her arrows), at, his personality or history didn't seem too distinct, compared to the likes of Voldemort or Vader.
Collins however, does not make Snow a sympathetic, nor unsympathetic character, but both. Snow is not (as people might expect), simply a rich and spoiled brat. There are times; such as when we see his love for his sweet-natured cousin Tigris, or his absolutely desperate circumstances, we feel sorry for him, even find ourselves on his side when he comes up against some pretty nasty people. Snow's circumstances even eerily mimic Katniss', being devoted to a sister, (albeit not quite a biological one), and an unwell older relative, both living on the edge of starvation, with Snow desperately trying to gain skills needed for their survival; though in Coriolanus case, those skills are flattery and statecraft as opposed to archery and woodcraft.
Yet for all that, Collins doesn't let us entirely forget just where Snow's story will end, with his occasional fits of contempt for those around him, even those who consider him as a friend, and his overbearing sense of family pride. These feelings are no less complex than in his relationship with Lucy Grey, the songbird of the book's title.
Lucy Grey might have again been another Katniss, a tough girl from District 12 unbroken by a hard life, however Collins makes Lucy Grey very much a person in her own right. A stage performer with a definite stake in her personal appearance and even a vengeful streak, plus very much her own history and culture (as seen in her double-barrelled name), Lucy Grey remains as complex a character as Snow and a perfect foil for the story Collins is telling, especially considering that though we know Snow survives the tenth Hunger Games, the same can't be said for Lucy Grey.
Collins is also extremely clever in Coriolanus' changing attitude to Lucy Grey. At times he is simply contemptuous, at times he considers her just a tool in his plans. There are points he seems genuinely in love with her, yet there are also points when that love strays worryingly towards the possessive, while at times it appears genuinely pure, even tantalising with hints at what Coriolanus could have been.
This complexity isn't limited to the main characters either. Given Snow's position in the story, we see less of the tributes; for all that they still make an impression, with some of them, such as the mysterious Reaper, still managing to feel almost as memorable as the likes of Kato or Rue.
Snow's fellow mentors all have a complex range of personalities and actions going from the compassionate and outspoken Sejanus, the kindly though touchy Clemensia, and the hard nosed Livia, each with their own set of political alliances. Indeed, the social game played by the mentors is in its way just as brutal as the arena, for all the stakes are far less dire. With Sejanus particularly, Collins performs a surprising reversal, by making the rich kid from new money; seemingly the natural rival of an impoverished aristocrat like Snow, be someone who is just genuinely good.
My only minor issue character wise, is that I do wish Collins would occasionally give her characters more of a physical description, since the appearance and characteristics of some very recognisable people are just mentioned once. Though Collins does tell us when a character changes their outfit or the like (especially with the colourful Lucy Grey), it would be nice if characters like Sejanus and Doctor Gaul made more of a physical impression.
Another problem with prequels, is that being as they're obviously written at a later date and intended by the author to be read after the main series, the world they take place in is of course familiar, with most of what we learn being historical details rather than new ones. Here however, Collins again surprises.
This is not the glittering, orgiastic Capitol of Katniss' day, but a grim, crater pocked city still very much in the shadow of war, where; despite the Capitol's stranglehold on the districts, food and resources are still scarce, and technology is at a premium. Even The Hunger Games and the treatment of the tributes is entirely different, since the world weary contest we get, with 24 ill, starving teenagers flung into a crumbling colosseum with little preparation is a far cry from the glamour and horror of the main trilogy.
Yet, Collins doesn't neglect her prequel responsibilities either, showing us where several traditions of the Capitol and the Games come from, indeed even the very excess of the Capitol's culture seen in the main series is almost an adverse reaction to the state of things here.
With most of Snow's experience of the Games coming through a television screen, complete with an irritating host, the events and style is entirely different, albeit this also created one of Collins' few missteps. Since with Panem's lower level of technology, the camera was only focused on the main arena, not on the tunnels surrounding it. While this made for a great rise in tension, with Lucy Grey and the other tributes only entering the arena and the camera's range to get food or murder each other, at the same time, it did seem a bit odd that nobody tried ambushes in the tunnels.
Though Ballad is undoubtedly a prequel, Collins obviously intends this to be read after the main series, since while the story is on the whole pretty grim, there is a surprising amount of humour. Some comes from some almost Rowlingesque Capitol character names, like Satyria, Coriolanus' communications professor, however further humour comes from adroit little nods to the series, for example Lucy Grey quoting the old saying: "it ain't over until the mockingjay sings", or when someone digs up an unripe Katniss route and declares it's too early for that. This humour is very much needed, since frequently, Ballad is nothing short of heart breaking.
Though the contest finishes ten hours through the book, Collins devotes the final six hours to world and character! Here she shows more of the environment outside the Capitol, and plays to the advantage of a prequel in showing us familiar aspects of the world, and how some iconic parts of the series came to be.
It is also in this section that Snow's character is finally tested. While we occasionally get hints of who and what Snow could be, we also get his true nature confirmed, often in truly soul rending ways, and his feet set firmly on the path that will lead him to his doomed presidency. Indeed, though the disconnect following the end of the games and this final six hour section is so jarring, it almost feels like another volume, at the same time, the ending here focuses very much on characterisation, letting us see Snow's motivations and choices cemented, the decisions he makes, and how he justifies them, an ending which, despite the lack of televised violence, is absolutely gripping, for all that it might feel slightly disjointed after the high tension of the games. Collins even pulls off another difficult literary stunt, and has one crucial character merely disappear with an ambiguous ending, yet since the whole thing is told from Coriolanus' perspective, this makes far more sense than it would in most books, and is obviously intentional.
Collins has always been unafraid to tackle big questions. Indeed, that was the thing that struck me most about The Hunger Games, rather than just reiterating the tired old sore that there are some situations where one must kill to survive, or showing the tragedy of a very decent person who is forced to become a killer, The Hunger Games begins with someone quite prepared to kill in defence of herself and her family, then follows through in showing what this costs.
The central idea of Ballad is one which Collins makes clear from several quotes; possibly slightly too many, that begin the book. Mary Shelley asking if monsters are born, or made, while the most unpleasant of enlightenment thinkers Thomas Hobbs, leavened by Locke and Rousseau, asking what exactly is the basic nature of humanity if there was no law, and what the real function of society is, a pleasant reminder for me of my time at university studying philosophy.
Yet, despite the fact that Collins obviously has points to make, with her typical care, Collins never preaches, nor resorts to simple heavy handed declarations; even Snow's wondering if the old world of North America was a country full of Capitols was more a wink than a direct comment. What Collins does do is ask a lot of very hard questions, and follow them to the hilt with characters who are flawed, human, and range from damned, to redeemed, whilst providing a tense, action packed and deeply compelling story along the way.
It is this ability to engage with really major questions, along with its richly complex characters; especially its protagonist, which makes Ballad for me up there with the best of the series, and an unreserved success. Indeed, it's interesting just how many professional critics (not unlike some of Snow's nastier mentor colleagues), seem to dislike this book, both its little insider jokes of humour and detail, and Collins consciously engaging with philosophical issues. Why some have taken against this book I don't know, yet for myself, and likely for any fans of the original trilogy, as well as anyone who wants to see Collins go against the odds to create a story which is both tense in its action and emotions, and complex in its ideas and characterisations, Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes certainly delivers, and would get a top rating of twelve from me, since in the brutal arena of literary appreciation, this is one definitely set to survive.
Review by Dark
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