Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Book review: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS AND SNAKES (Suzanne Collins)

Set 64 years before The Hunger Games, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is Suzanne Collins' prequel to her dystopian YA trilogy, a book series whose film adaptations launched the Hollywood career of that awful over-actor and recipient of the most undeserved Oscar win ever, Jennifer Lawrence.

For that reason, then, you'd think that I would dislike The Hunger Games books. But I actually really enjoyed them (I even enjoyed some facets of the films). The world-building exhibited in the books was extremely inventive, and, whilst it may have been a tad derivative of Battle Royale and various Roman and Greek myths, I maintain that most good art contains inflections of other artists that preceded it.

Central to the books was the first-person narrative of Katniss Everdeen, the tribute from District 12. Throughout the trilogy she displayed courage, resilience and resourcefulness beyond her 16 years, and her actions were underscored with familial loyalty to her more fragile younger sister, Prim. Collins shrewdly avoided painting her heroine as a Mary Sue, however, as Katniss was also stubborn, unforgiving, whiny and often downright unlikeable.

Collins clearly enjoys writing complex characters, because in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, she delivers the origin story of one Coriolanus Snow, who at the time of The Hunger Games is the President of Panem and the principal antagonist. This novel, set 64 years before that, follows Snow when he is 18 years old, in his final year of High School, and mentoring a tribute who's about to enter the tenth Hunger Games.

In a fortuitous stroke of luck (or dramatic convenience), his tribute is Lucy Grey Baird, the female tribute of District 12. A performer who earns money from singing, she's quite different from Katniss: flirtatious, happy to play up for the audience and rolls with the punches without self-pitying.

Like Katniss, she's a survivor who places immense weight on preserving her own life, but unlike Katniss, doesn't drive herself crazy with self-reflection having done it.

The Corionlanus Snow we're presented with is also far removed from the evil, heartless ruler presented in the 75th Hunger Games and onwards, but 18-year-old Snow (nicknamed Coryo) does exhibit the Machiavellian streak, and calculating pragmatism that is prevalent in his older self.

What I found most interesting about The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was the descriptions of the Capitol after it had been ravaged by the rebellion; the place was very different from how it was in The Hunger Games. The Easter Eggs, littered throughout the book, had many callbacks (or forwards?) to characters of The Hunger Games, which I enjoyed.

I was also drawn to the relationship between Snow and Lucy Grey. As he primes her for the Games, he inadvertently falls in love with her, and she, him. The clear power imbalance between the two makes this romantic set-up a little noxious, but Collins is good at writing romantic monologues, and it's nice to be reminded that for the briefest of moments, Snow is capable of human emotions. Collins also coyly drops hints in the book that Lucy Grey is no damsel-in-distress, and thus, if she likes Snow, that was an autonomous sentiment, not because she felt coerced into it.

The tenth Hunger Games is much more rudimentary than the 74th and third Quarter Quell, so it gave a nice sense of completeness to read about the Games in their less evolved form. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is written for a slightly more mature audience than THG, and as such, Ms. Collins did not scrimp on the blood in the action scenes, which were efficiently brutal. 

Reading these scenes, I can picture them making for adrenaline-pumping scenes in the film adaptations which will certainly push the BBFC 12A boundaries (unless the producers decide to be bold and target the R rating, as Joker, another villain origin story did, very successfully).

Unfortunately, there were a few elements that prevented The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes from being as compelling as the books set after it. Firstly, the novel's central thesis of whether man is inherently good and thus can be allowed to roam free, or is inherently evil and should be governed, was laid on very thick.

The Locke vs Hobbes debate would be better suited for a Philosophy class, and Collins frequently giving supporting characters soundbites to argue either case added nothing to the novel, instead, making it rather laboured.

There were a few dramatic beats which I wasn't expecting, and I relished the surprise during reading the book. However, upon reflection, I feel they were rather contrived, and some were long-winded ways of getting to a destination that Collins could have delivered the reader to sooner.

The main thing that prevented me from loving the book, however, was Coriolanus Snow. Whilst he started out an interesting character with understandable, if not noble intentions (his family legacy was of wealth, but they lost all their money backing the losing side in the war, so he must sustain the fa├žade of being rich when really his family are struggling), once he carried out one misdeed, you could tell it was getting easier and easier for him. 

It would have been sweet if his love for Lucy Grey redeemed him and changed his worldview, but, as the audience knows what happens in The Hunger Games, we already know that that's not how things pan out, and we're just waiting for something to go wrong between them.

Furthermore, whilst I do understand that Coryo was, to an extent, a victim of circumstance (as the poor family in Parasite argued, it's easy to be nice when you're rich), the complete lack of resistance from him to challenge the world order made him a very unsympathetic character.

It's one thing to see something unfair and question it and try to change it, even if your efforts are ultimately futile. 

It's something else entirely to see injustice, be complicit in it, and then realise that the gravy train is even better if you actively promote said injustices.

Coriolanus Snow's motivation seemed to be 'if you can't beat them, join them'. For the origin story of such a dastard villain, I was hoping for something a bit more profound than that.



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