The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Review
Updated: Jan 20
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Date Finished: May 23, 2020
Read Time: 4 Days
Thank you again for returning to Nerfie Notes! I get pretty detailed in my thoughts for this book, but if you’d like the gist, there is a TL;DR halfway that sums it up. If you have thoughts on The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, please use the comment function at the bottom or send me a submission so we can talk about it. As always, check out my Goodreads using the social link on the top bar to see what I’m reading and what will likely be the next review! :)
A prologue, if you will. While reading this book, the only thing I could hear was the song “Prey” by The Neighbourhood. I’m linking it on the album cover, and if you’ve read the book, are in the middle of it, etc., definitely consider how this one relates. Too much of a stretch? I can’t help but feel like this has to go on the soundtrack for the movie. Click on the image of the cover to hear the song.
SPOILER FREE REVIEW STARTS HERE:
I have just put down this book, and my initial gut reaction is still a mix of feelings.
I don’t even know how to begin this review. My feelings changed intensely with every chapter of reading this book, only to finally turn toward some sustained positivity in Act 3. I almost wish I had the patience to read it again and really hone in on the underlying metaphors I didn’t notice until somewhere past the page 300 mark. Before that point I had just been frustrated.
I was a huge Hunger Games fan growing up, around my middle school era. Who wasn’t once the movies came out with two fabulous stars as love interests? But I’m talking about the books here. They were one of the first, if not the first YA series I tore through. Mockingjay was the first book that made me cry. I was so frustrated and upset that 12 year old Meg ran down to my Mom’s room sobbing and proceeded to draw a bright purple frown right over the page. I can’t even remember if I fully finished it until months later. I was invested, but my heart had been broken. Anyway, when I saw a new book was coming out, I preordered it immediately - even though it was about the one dystopian villain I still think about to this day. How could I possibly like him or his narration?
Spoiler alert (not really)! You can’t.
If you aren’t familiar with the premise of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the novel focuses on President Snow circa the tenth hunger games. He’s in his teens, and he’s in the first trial run of mentors. He’s given the female tribute from District 12 and thinks he has no chance to win with her, but is determined because “Snow lands on top.”
Before going into specifics, I want to note that this is one of the only books I think may just serve better as a movie. I could really imagine it playing out on screen, and not just because of my major. Beyond that, this is one of the only books I think could have benefited from dual POV. I would have loved to hear more from Lucy.
As far as just the experience of reading the book goes, the plot is all over the place. It’s hard to tell what track the plot is taking, and I’m still not convinced it knew where it would land until the end. I’m generally interested in a story that doesn’t follow a regular plot diagram, but this wasn’t even a skewed diagram. It was just, well, it kind of felt like this:
The book didn’t pick up speed for me until the third part, or as I like to think of it, the third “act.” That being said, I didn’t feel the need to DNF it (“do not finish” for those unfamiliar). It kept me roped in enough to continue, through enough curiosity of how the games would play out, but just barely. There were times where Snow would go on and on about his inner thoughts about something and I found myself pretty close to giving up and waiting for the movie.
I ran into another huge issue around 200 pages in, another consequence having to do with the knotted up headphone string that was the plot. There are so many characters, all with dystopian names, that they are often hard to keep track of. I wrote this thought down mid-read:
I’m currently at page 268, and this whole book I’ve been thinking a lot about desire. What is a character if not their desires, their goals? It brings me back to my creative writing class where I was told to rip my characters apart, to find out what really made them tick and give each of them a clear motive after doing so.
Suzanne Collins has been getting away with murder in this book (pun intended). Her tributes are all easy to write since their motivations are all the same - to survive. She then only has the trouble of making them discernable, different beyond their shared goal. Which at most points thus far, they haven’t been. I’ve had to refer back to the list of tributes and their corresponding mentors too many times to count. This is a far cry from the first Hunger Games novel where I can remember many key attributes of more than a handful of tributes. Maybe this has something to do with being outside of the arena for this novel, but even then, shouldn’t all the mentors have something special? Only a few have stood out: Clemensia and Seajanus - and Festus, if we’re being generous.
My main issue of motive showed up not in the tributes, though, but in Tigris. What is her motive beyond keeping the home and being some sort of comfort vessel for Coriolanus? Maybe I’m just not far enough, but I feel like by now she should have some defining trait that she’s bringing to the novel. I don’t think her fashion desires are quite enough. Her character seems pretty static to me, but is presented as though she’s going to be a pretty large role in the book. Who is Tigris if not her love of fashion and Coriolanus? That’s just… not enough. That’s not how people are.
Unfortunately, most of these issues of motivation and differentiating characters were never solved. Until we hit part three, that is, and even then they’re only partially resolved. This is when we really find out who the important people are and their roles. But it still seems off to me, to have to get about 350 pages into a book to not only be invested, but to be able to stick with the memorable characters. Maybe this is just a consequence of writing with the main event having 24 characters be necessary, but I think there must be a better way to do it.
Writing Style and Themes
As far as the writing goes, there are two distinct parts to this conversation. First, there’s the clear genius behind Suzanne Collins, whether you like the book or not. As I read the book, I slowly began to notice how cognizant Collins was of her themes and how to weave them in. They were braided through the story thoughtfully, only in small tastes or dialogue. It was one of the only parts of the book I thought wasn’t overdone.
I was continually baffled on the viewpoint of not only Snow, but the Capitol citizens overall, of how human nature works. I think this is one of the main points Collins wants you to think about: are humans inherently good or evil? There is a clear line of division between the Capitol and the districts, and you can probably guess which side is which. Here are some quotes that really stuck out to me about this, kicking the idea into your head without lagging on about it…
“What happened in the arena? That’s humanity undressed. The tributes. And you, too. How quickly civilization disappears.”
“... it’s essential that you make an effort to answer that question. Who are human beings?”
It’s difficult to pick out a perfect quote without spoilers, but let me say it intrigued me enough to look into the philosophy of someone who could believe humans were inherently bad. It got me into a philosopher named Thomas Hobbes, and it’s an interesting read after you’ve finished TBOSAS. Makes you think about where the Capitol’s philosophes could be coming from. I’ll link it here. There is another article linked on the photo that has some pretty interesting takes on the human condition as well.
One other downside to the writing came in a habit a lot of people complained about in Mockingjay, and that is Collins’s way of skipping over just the part of the scene you want to see. Granted, it mainly happens one large time, but it was big enough for me to be frustrated to a point where I pulled out my Mac to type this…
Having officially hit part three, I just came to a sudden remembrance of an old Suzanne Collins tactic - conventinently skimming scenes! Wow! I love it so much!
Why is it that right when you get to the scene you want to read she finds some way for it to just… not happen? I remember it in Mockingjay especially; when it would come to any big scene, it would either be summarized for Katniss or she would somehow wake up afterward severely injured. So. Frustrating.
Just the scene I’ve been waiting for. Or, at least one of them. And, lucky for me, it happens in three sentences! With no! Dialogue! At all! I could have! Just! Gone over it! She extends the scene for maybe a page in the next chapter, but I still don’t find this forgivable.
You can see how annoyed I was with this book in the beginning. Through all of this though, I still commend Collins on the way she reveals Snow through her narration and her other characters and settings through her writing.
Speaking of Snow, let’s move on to the man of the hour.
Narration / Snow
518 pages later, and no, I still haven't found one single redeeming aspect of his character. I think this is why so many people are 50/50 on how they feel about this book. Diehard fans are happy to just get back into the world and to be able to tear their villain apart. I found myself leaning more toward being frustrated about how much Snow would drone on. Did he mention that he hates the mockingjays? How about he says it again?
The funny part is - Collins is fully aware that we hate Snow, and she only uses it to her advantage. It makes you think, “How could this get worse?” And you keep going. While I was frustrated as hell at Snow, so much so that I started marking moments where I wanted him dead, I still commend Collins on being able to write a narcissist so well.
I wish I could get myself to dislike this book, especially after how frustrated I was with it around the 60% mark. Even with the physical hunger games happening, I was just… bored. But somehow, I was still intrigued, and I think part of it was the appeal of wishing and praying that Snow would somehow change.
Was this book necessary? No. Did it give us a broader world view anyway? Yes, but it took far too long in certain parts.
I want to note how mixed my feelings still are. I respect it - highly, but some of the slowness still sticks out regardless of my enjoyment of the themes.
TL;DR: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a solid prequel, but it takes too long to get there. If you’re a fan, you’ll likely find yourself somewhere in the middle of appreciating more about Snow and just wanting to throw the book out the window. The writing has some beautiful moments and some where it just drones on for too long. Either way, I respect Collins for her carefully woven themes and ideas. She is a talented author no doubt, and I’d probably pick up another novel of her regardless of how much the beginning of this book drove me crazy from slowness.
HEADING INTO SPOILERS:
Alright folks, let’s chat.
If you’ve read my intro or noticed in the picture, you’ll see I like to put little post-it notes in my book. This picture is from before I got to the end, where I added an entirely new color for all the places Snow was a hypocrite or I wanted him to die. Here are some examples.
“He knew this would be easier if he wasn’t such an exceptional person. The best and the brightest humanity had to offer. The youngest to pass the officer candidate test. If he’d been useless and stupid, the loss of civilizatiion would not have hollowed out his insides in this manner.” (Page 495).
I’ll give it to Collins again. I know she wants us to hate him. But damn, does he suck.
With that, I want to commend Collins on her wording to continually show how elusive and narcissistic Snow is. After droning on about how Seajanus was lying and how terrible it was, I marked over three spots where Coriolanus lies and not once does it say this in writing. It’s as if it passes right through him naturally, as if he deserves to lie. I also remember one specific moment where it is commented that Seajanus may think the world revolves around him, and Coriolanus criticizes that. SNOW CRITICIZES THAT THE WORLD SHOULDN’T REVOLVE AROUND SOMEONE. SNOW.
At points I almost found that the writing revealed itself too clearly. By the time the song about Lucy Gray was sung, I knew exactly where the end of the novel was heading, even if I didn’t know how.
The best part about the writing are the small ways she contradicts Snow with the birds to further drive it home to any close reader that this clearly is not going to end well. Unfortunately, maybe it was just me - I picked up on this way earlier than I probably should have. Take this quote…
“...building complicated harmonies with their voices. Coriolanus didn’t care for it; the sound unsettled him. He sat through at least three songs of this kind before he realized it reminded him of the mockingjays.” (Page 365).
Maybe I just picked up on it too easily from all of my gruelling writing and literature classes, but even though it’s just a few sentences, this told me everything I needed to know. It just got deeper and deeper as Coriolanus hated and couldn’t even handle the birds while others were able to do so. Even the Capitol woman respected the birds she was manipulating. It just shows that Snow couldn’t even respect Lucy in the end, let alone care for her. It was never going to work.
Part of me thinks there has to be a deeper ending as to what happened with Lucy. She must be someone else in the trilogy, hiding in some small detail we have to go back and find. I’m going to rummage through the internet and try to find something, but I don’t want to mention it here since I haven’t been clever enough to figure anything out yet.
So, if you’ve finished the book, let’s talk in the comments. Did you think the book was too slow? Was Snow too terrible to deal with as a narrator? What else did it need? Where is Lucy now? Use the submissions below or the comments and let me know!