In Suzanne Collins’s blockbuster trilogy, “The Hunger Games,” Panem President Coriolanus Snow is presented as a calculating, ruthless dictator bent on destroying the Mockingjay heroine, Katniss Everdeen. In Collin’s new novel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (Scholastic), we are introduced to an angst-ridden teenage Snow, forty years before the trilogy. He’s fighting for survival in a post-Dark Days republic where the Capitol has squashed the rebellion in the fourteen districts leaving him, his cousin Tigris, and his grandmother close to the point of starvation. His family’s wealth and prestige are relics of the past, and Snow wonders how will he be able to afford University tuition next year.
Coriolanus is preparing to graduate from the prestigious Panem Academy when he is selected as a mentor for Lucy Gray Baird, a tribute from District 12 in the Tenth Hunger Games. Despite Lucy’s lack of physical strength or training, she is gifted with charisma, strength and intellect. She is a Covey, a wandering minstrel, who claims no affiliation with any district, but has been seen selected during the Reaping. Coriolanus is immediately charmed by her unique personality, and falls in love with this young woman who is about to meet her death in the arena. Snow romanticizes that the pair are kindred spirits and star-crossed lovers as they battle the other district’s tributes, his fellow mentors, the malicious high school dean Casca Highbottom, and the chaotic war-mongering Master Gamemaker, Dr. Gaul.
During the first two parts of the novel, and as devastation repeatedly occurs inside and outside of the Hunger Games arena, readers find themselves questioning, who are the tributes and who are the mentors? Also, what are Coriolanus’s true motives in assisting Lucy Gray — is it because “she’s his girl,” or he desires the recognition and scholarship offered to the winning mentor? And to what lengths will Snow go to achieve either prize?
Family and friendship mean a great deal to Coriolanus, and his loving and generous relationships with a weak, wealthy student, Sejanus Plinth, his cousin Tigris, grandmother and his childhood pal, Clemensia Dovecote, reveal the flicker of goodness that is buried within the heart of this budding autocrat. However, as the story develops, readers, like Snow, will wrestle with where his true loyalties ultimately lie.
Once again, Collins builds a world shattered by war, poverty and government corruption against the backdrop of the cost of war on society and individuals. As Dr. Gall asks Coriolanus, what would the world be without rules? Clearly, someone must be in charge, and the teenage Snow imagines himself as that leader, the future President of Panem.
Readers will also revel in Collins’s nod to “The Hunger Games” trilogy, not only through Snow’s origin story, but through references to other familiar icons. She fills in the past plot gaps by weaving the Mockingjays, Jabberjays, the history of the Dark Days, “The Hangman’s Tree” song, and Snow’s very personal connection to District 12 (Katniss’ district) into her new tale to reinforce our emotional connection to Katniss and Snow’s future relationship.
“The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is a requiem of the slow, steady corruption of Coriolanus Snow where his naiveté melts like winter’s snow in the Capitol. It becomes clear that Snow’s future authoritative convictions are the product of his complicated relationships, and the loss, deprivation and trauma of his youth. However, in this nature-versus-nurture, law-versus-chaos, and teen-versus-teen tale, Coriolanus Snow always seems to land on top.
Read Jodé’s preview of the book, along with her thoughts on father archetypes in The Hunger Games series, here.