Spoiler Alert! Do not read further if you don’t want to know how this story ends.
When I started reading The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins on my Libby app, I knew nothing about it. I only knew that it was written by the author of The Hunger Games. I hadn’t read any reviews or the cover blurb or seen any ads for it. I just happened to see that the book had come out and I put my name on the library waiting list. I got a notification a few weeks later and downloaded it to my phone . I was hooked on the story quickly and the writing is excellent. One thing I don’t care much for is the title. It makes sense, but it’s hard to remember.
The story opens with a hungry and poor Coriolanus Snow cooking cabbage and wishing he never had to eat it again. Now here is where my poor memory failed to remind me who he was and therefore I labored under the false idea that this story was AFTER the last book. In fact, this book is a prequel! This character is actually the teenage boy who later becomes the President of Panem. Until the very end I thought he was the grandson or son. Hahaha! Oh well. It made the ending that much more interesting.
I would subtitle this post “The making of a sociopath” but I don’t want to give away the ending to everyone who might see this in their blog feed.. As the story begins, you are reading a third person view of Coriolanus’ thoughts. You quickly learn that he lives a life of pretense. He’s just a kid but he has been raised in his family’s penthouse with his cousin Tigris by his patriotic ‘Grandma’am’ after both of his parents died and she has made it clear that she expects him to follow in his rich and powerful father’s footsteps. Today his big dilemma is what to wear to the Hunger Games reaping because they are so poor that they had to sell many of their belongings to afford food and heat after the rebellion destroyed the Capitol.
As the story goes along you will share in all of Coriolanus’ questions, fears, and thoughts as he is faced with a series of difficult situations that are like crossroads where he continually chooses the wrong path. Almost all of the adults in his life give him bad advice or are unaware of what he is facing. His cousin Tigris is a good influence, but because she is powerless to help him with the financial worries that he is facing or his future goals, her influence is mostly insignificant. His grandmother consistently reinforces the beliefs that District residents are no different that animals. The other adults who have power over his future implicitly encourage him to put his own future above all other considerations. There are no moral or religious influences in this society and he has no belief in God.
Coriolanus is chosen by the Head Gamemaker, Dr. Gaul, and Dean Highbottom of the Academy where he attends high school to take part in a mentor program they have devised for the Hunger Games. The goal is to get more interest and viewers by pairing Capital teens with District tributes. As we see Coriolanus’ interactions with other students and school officials, we learn that he is very manipulative and careful to portray a certain image. He keeps his current poverty a secret as well as he can. He and his family suffered greatly during the rebellion and siege of the Capitol. Now things are getting back to normal for some but without his father’s income, his little family is struggling to eat and have basic necessities. Performing well in school and society is essential to his future and he is willing to do anything to get the scholarship he needs.
Sejanus Plinth, a fellow student, is the son of a District family that amassed a fortune during the rebellion by selling munitions and was allowed to move into the Capitol. Coriolanus sees him as typical District scum, but he chooses not to bully him like the other kids. Instead, Coriolanus ignored him when he arrived and that was taken as acceptance by Sejanus. Throughout the story and until the very end, the complicated duplicitous relationship between the two boys is used by Coriolanus to his advantage. I kept hoping that Coriolanus would see that Sejanus was right about things as he keeps rebelling against the Capitol, but he chose the other path. Coriolanus also uses and looks down on Sejanus’ selfless mother and sees her strength of character as a weakness. This was possibly the most sad and disturbing part of the story for me as a mother.
Coriolanus has many opportunities to do the ‘right’ thing, but after arguing with his conscience, he consistently chooses the option that he believes will benefit him, protect his reputation, and ensure that he gets the scholarship he needs. I kept hoping he would see the error of his ways, but I was also unaware of who he actually was, since I thought he was the grandson. Even when one of his fellow mentors is seriously injured by snakes that the Gamemaker has genetically engineered, he mostly blames her for the attack and is more concerned with his own reputation and safety. In every situation where he stands to gain an upper hand, he chooses that over doing the right thing.
The third main character is Lucy Gray, a tribute from District 12. Coriolanus is mortified to be assigned to her as he sees that district as weak. He and the other kids all see the Districts as nothing more than slaves, lower than animals in their esteem. Later some of the mentors begin to change their opinions a little but only Sejanus tries to do anything to help them. However once he finds out that Lucy Gray is a favorite of the public due to her singing voice, he feels like he is the lucky one. He falls for her beautiful voice and becomes devoted to keeping her alive. At first you believe that he really cares about her, but over time you start to question if this is just a narcissistic love. Over and over he battles with his competing goals of assuring his own future and his desire for her. But eventually you see that this type of selfish love is easily discarded.
The story is a beautifully designed psychological observation of the main characters wrestling with serious moral issues. If you are more interested in action and emotionalism, this book may not satisfy you. There is a lack of emotion due to the cold-heartedness of the Capitol and hopelessness of the Districts. There is some action in the Hunger Games scenes, but it’s more slow moving and deliberate than the other books. And just when you think the action might get going, it stops again. The main action is inside Coriolanus’ head as conscience and selfishness wrestle to the death. As a dystopian novel, there is not much hope for a happy ending.
I’m glad I read this book because it gave me food for thought about motives, justifications, dilemmas, selfishness, and selflessness. In this current world we are living in, these are very important issues. It was also interesting to see how the adults in his life influenced Coriolanus to become the cruel person he became, but how Sejanus did not give up his morals even though his father was more like Coriolanus’ father. Nature versus nurture was on trial.