Were we all a little burned out on dystopic YA fiction for a while there? Yeah, and the movie studios sure didn’t help. Yet here in 2020, something about a pandemic has made dystopic fiction that is specifically YA a lot more appealing though, so who better to reignite my interest in the genre than Susanne Collins herself? Did I get so obsessively into the Hunger Games trilogy back in ’12 that I neglected to finish my Masters thesis on time and had to take an extra semester? Yes. Yes, I did. Have I been using the new book in a similar fashion while I’m stuck in a never ending lockdown? You can bet your ass I have.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes us back to the 10th Hunger Games and puts us up close and personal with President Snow, a young man who is more pauper than prince. Despite having been wealthy before the war, Snow’s family has fallen on hard times, so when his posh Academy announces that the students will be mentoring the tributes for the games, he sees it as his opportunity for glory and a free ride to University. Snow is given the female tribute from District 12, which he sees as an insult, until he realizes she has some unique talents he can plumb for his own benefit. Is it a bit pandering to have him get the District 12 woman? Yeah, but she’s so darn likable that I didn’t even mind once the story kicked into gear.
This isn’t quite the Snow we know, as he’s only 18, but by the end of the book we have a greater appreciation of how he becomes the dictator we know and fear from the original trilogy. Collins is taking a more brainy approach to the idea behind the games, and trying to get into discussions surrounding the base nature of humanity. She doesn’t go that deep, as her 500 page book has a lot of plot, but what she does ponder through Snow and his colleagues she does her best to illustrate with action and genuine character motivation. It’s a good primer on Enlightenment thinking, and a relevant discussion to have in a time when our own governments move towards shadier behavior.
Sometimes, we get too much tie in with the original trilogy. It makes sense that some of Snow’s classmates have the same last names as characters from the OG books, because Panem is dynastic society, but when we do go get insight into the early years of District 12 there’s almost an over-emphasis on relating Katniss’s experience of that world to the one in this book. I did enjoy seeing the grandfather of Caesar Flickerman as the first host of the Hunger Games, but it meant that I could only picture him as Stanley Tucci (maybe they’ll just cast Tucci anyway when they do the movies- no one else can hold a candle to that magnificent man).
There was some talk when it was announced that Collins would be writing a prequel about whether or not she should write about the antagonist of the original trilogy, and whether or not it was “good” for people to see a humanized version of a vile and evil man. Some complained that we would be adding validation to a villain, which, they rationalized, may lead people to sympathize with Trumpers and Incels. Collins has humanized Snow, but he is rarely sympathetic; she constantly juxtaposes his misfortune with that of the people in the districts, showing how his suffering in the Capital still isn’t as bad as it is for those in the Districts, and that he is arrogant, close-minded, and sociopathic. Knowing who he becomes made me ever more aware that I shouldn’t empathize too strongly with him, and gave the entire story an ominous air. She uses this to show how a person who tends towards the dark could have been good with better mentors, but with the wrong mentors he becomes absolutely corrupt, embracing his selfishness and cruelty. It’s a responsible approach to explaining a villain- Snow isn’t a victim of circumstance, and while he’s had his fair share of suffering to harden him, he ultimately chooses to continue his hardening and reject goodness and kindness. This is a more interesting and realistic way to explain our villain, as he isn’t two dimensional anymore, and there are plenty of examples within the book of how he could have acted differently to avoid certain outcomes.
My favorite thread in Snow’s development comes in his romantic plotline, as he slowly begins to think of his crush as “his” and takes on some of the most classic toxic masculinity traits we’ve come to see in young men objectify women. Yes, there’s a love story- this is dystopic YA fic here- but it isn’t one you root for, and it isn’t one young people will want to mimic and long for. From the moment it starts it’s cringe worthy, because Snow is leveraging his inborn power against a scared woman. There will be people who say the context of the romance is irresponsible by virtue of the fact that it exists, but if you actually look at how Collins frames it, it’s clear from the start that it’s a toxic dynamic, aided by a narcissistic man’s obsession with his own self-gratification. Maybe it will actually serve as an example of how not to do love for the young readers this book is marketed towards. Snow is a lot like an Edward Cullin in his obsessive and possessive ways, and it may even be a direct criticism of that kind of character. Collins constantly shows how Snow’s inner monologue twists the words and actions of the object of his affection to be about his desires and his needs, and he only serves her to get to his own gratification- not out of selflessness or genuine compassion. If you ask me, it’s about time someone in YA shed some light on the toxic, possessive love story, and Collins has done it gracefully and carefully.
I’ll be curious to see if we get another prequel (or two) and can’t wait to see who gets cast as a young Donald Sutherland in the inevitable movie adaptation. Although, if you ask me, this has limited-series written all over it, from the structure to the length. Like seriously, it’s 500 pages.