Book Review: “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” by Suzanne Collins

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The announcement that Suzanne Collins was publishing a Hunger Games prequel was the proverbial shot heard ’round the literary world. Everyone wanted to get their hands on it. I think excitement waned a bit, however, when we realized that it was about President Snow as a young man. This is a testament to how hated President Snow was in the original series- at first glance, he’s not the kind of interesting villain you’d want to read about; rather, he’s hated so much that you’d rather not think too much about him at all.

Regardless of how much you might hate Snow, picking up The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is still a welcome return to the disturbing world of Panem and all of its rules and division. While Panem is a horrible place, it’s a well-written, engrossing one. With this prequel, we get to learn more about how the Hunger Games came to be the way they are in the original trilogy. Plus, Coriolanus Snow as a young man may surprise you.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes gets right: Suzanne Collins is awesome at writing about psychological warfare. Throughout The Hunger Games trilogy, we saw how having to constantly act and perform was exhausting to Katniss; in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, we see how Coriolanus Snow is similarly affected. You wouldn’t think that a Capital kid from a rich family would have to fake his way through life in order not to die, but that’s the case for Coriolanus. The adults around him can’t be trusted- in fact, they may even decide to kill him- and this situation makes him a more relatable character than you’d expect. Coriolanus actually has a few things in common with Katniss, at least in this book.

However, unlike Katniss, Coriolanus is a very controlled and calculating character. He often relies on charisma and faked confidence to get him through dangerous encounters. While I enjoyed how raw and honest Katniss was, sometimes her brash words and deeds would make me cringe as I feared what kind of trouble she would get in. She was not a natural actress; but for Coriolanus, acting is not only easy but necessary, which probably explains how he eventually made it to the top in the Capital.

 

What The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes gets wrong: Most of the side characters don’t get fleshed out or developed very well. I felt like I barely knew anyone other than Coriolanus and Sejanus, his fellow mentor and a rebel sympathizer, throughout the story.

The plot kind of meanders around in Part I as various attacks postpone the Games. Then there’s some romance in Part II and III that just didn’t strike me as believable (slight spoilers in the next few sentences). Don’t get me wrong, I love romance in books, but this one seemed shallow to me. Coriolanus gets caught up in petty jealousy when the girl he likes could die the next day, and I’m just not having that. And why would Lucy Gray Baird be interested in Coriolanus- how does she have time for feelings when she’s facing her death? They couldn’t be more different and their romance is based on the bare minimum. If Lucy Gray knew more about how possessive and controlling Coriolanus actually is (which we as readers get to hear in his thoughts) I don’t think she would like him at all. This romance was doomed from the start because they don’t know each other at all.

 

Who should read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: Fans of The Hunger Games who want to revisit the world of Panem. Readers who enjoy learning about ambitious, cunning protagonists who later become villains (Coriolanus is definitely an unhealthy Enneagram Three, and would be in Slytherin were he at Hogwarts).

 

Who shouldn’t read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: If you didn’t like The Hunger Games, then you probably won’t like this prequel, either. And even as a Hunger Games fan, I didn’t particularly love this book because Coriolanus just doesn’t *get* it, and he got on my nerves a lot toward the end. He just doesn’t allow himself to have empathy for others who are different from him. I liked the ending, where he was finally showing his true colors, better than the rest of the book where he was pretending to be a decent person.

 

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes can be found on our summer Staff Picks display. You can also check out The Hunger Games trilogy!

Content note: violence, psychological trauma, substance abuse.

Most book reviews on this blog are written by Olivia Chin and reflect her personal opinions of the books, not the library’s view as a whole.

People’s Choice Book Review: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

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Recently, I asked the Union community via Instagram to pick a book for me to review (these are the kind of fun shenanigans I’ve been up to while working from home). The choices were Race Matters, The Sun Also Rises, and The Handmaid’s Tale.  Each of these books are available at the library, so patrons can read the review and then pick out the book. The votes came in, and The Handmaid’s Tale was chosen!

Spoiler-free description of The Handmaid’s Tale: a woman in a dogmatic society, the Republic of Gilead, must play the hated role of a Handmaid while grappling with memories of a past life.

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale a year or two ago. I’d heard of it before, and as the show based on the book gained more media attention, the buzz put the book back on my radar (although I still haven’t watched the show). I remember reading The Handmaid’s Tale as fast as my eyes could skim the words- the story was so engrossing and equal parts mind-numbingly sad and frustrating. As soon as I finished, I handed the book over to my husband, and he also read it blazingly fast. I strongly believe that The Handmaid’s Tale is a book by women, for women (and it attracts a largely female audience because it’s talking about female experiences, and boys don’t read “girl” books starting at an early age). But this story is also very much for men, too. In fact, I wish more men would read The Handmaid’s Tale.

Let’s get one thing straight about The Handmaid’s Tale before we dive in to the review: this is a book about a very messed up society. If you’ve kept up with author Margaret Atwood at all, then you know that she is obviously not promoting the mistreatment of women with this book. She is fighting against it in real life by showing how terrible it is in fiction. This is one of those books where some really rough acts and crimes are committed, but that doesn’t mean that the book is promoting this kind of behavior- it’s actually the exact opposite. Yet, The Handmaid’s Tale still winds up on banned book lists because people are afraid to read about real problems (that’s just my opinion there, but hey, this is a book review, so most of this is my opinion).

Mild spoilers ahead.

What The Handmaid’s Tale gets right: This is a very insulated story. It’s told from one woman’s perspective, and since she’s been subjected to brainwashing and abuse, sometimes her perspective is shocking. A lot of books about crazy government regimes focus on the politics or the activists, but this book zeroes in on one Handmaid’s story. I love that. It’s so much more personal and relatable than if we had 300+ pages about every terrible law that Gilead passed.

The Handmaid’s Tale is fictional. Some might call it satire, but it’s also a warning to the real world. Sometimes you can reach a wider audience by instilling your values and fears into fiction, and Atwood does this beautifully in The Handmaid’s Tale. A very paraphrased and basic version of her message is this: women are equal to men, but a lot of societies don’t treat them this way; biological differences are often used by those in power to subjugate women; and systemic oppression is wrong. As a feminist, I appreciate these messages being brought to the general public in the form of a story- this makes hard facts and opinions more accessible to everyone.

What The Handmaid’s Tale gets wrong: There are some slower parts to the book, but honestly you probably won’t notice. You’ll be too caught up in how awful Gilead is. Also, there’s a cliffhanger and we had to wait over 30 years for a sequel. So, if you’re just now picking up this book, you will be excited to know that you can read The Testaments right after (and you can read my review of The Testaments here).

Who should read The Handmaid’s Tale: Readers who enjoy dystopian books, feminist literature, and finally knowing what all of the hype is about.

Who shouldn’t read The Handmaid’s Tale: Younger audiences should wait until they are mature enough for the heavy content.

The Handmaid’s Tale is available as a print book at the library.

Content note: there are scenes of rape and abuse all throughout the book. Reader discretion is advised.