Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Suzanne Collins

Published 2020

NO SPOILERS

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the prequel to The Hunger Games trilogy. I read those books back in 2014 and wrote poor excuses for two of them here: The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.

Regretfully, this will be another deficient excuse of a response. 

In this prequel, Collins takes the reader to the beginning of the Hunger Games, sometime after the conclusion of the civil war. The citizens living in the districts are being punished for the rebellion, and two youth from each of the twelve districts, male and female, are sent to participate in the annual Games, to fight to the death. The final remaining tribute becomes the victor. But that is all. 

The current year of the story, the Academy decided to experiment with exciting ways to garner interest in the Games because the appeal in children bludgeoning each other to death had waned in previous years. Hence, a mentor was assigned to each tribute, with a reward of a University scholarship to the one mentor of the victor. The mentors would be responsible for brainstorming enticing ways to engage viewers to support the Games.

The main character, Coriolanus Snow, a young man who lived in the Capitol, was hoping to attend University; therefore, it became a great opportunity for him when he was chosen to mentor a tribute, Lucy Gray, from District 12. 

Snow, an orphan, lived with a cousin and grandmother. For one living in the Capitol, he suffered poor circumstances, and it was easy for feel empathy toward him. 

Snow's tribute, Gray, was 16-year old colorful and talented, yet, quick-witted, benumbed girl who was also living in compromised circumstances. While you expect to feel compassion for Gray, you sense she is a survivalist and can manage her own ways without help from anyone. 

But Snow is the one you keep your eye on because he is the villain in the future trilogy. I anticipated a major event that would turn him toward evil; but instead, I had continuous reasons to hope for him, which was conflicting. His conscience told him that the Games were wrong, but he never acted on it to change the situation. 

And as is common with Collins, the love interest never felt true. At least, in the case of Coriolanus and Lucy, their relationship or interest was not convincing, and it left off very abruptly.

Furthermore, the whole ending was unexpected and hurried. The events changed without evidence to support why, and I was left with that sudden change in Snow, which also was not compelling. 

In my reviews of two of The Hunger Games books, I had the same problem with Collins. My son warned me: she does not really know how to end a story. She can tell a story, but sometimes it falls apart. For example, I liked the premise of The Hunger Games trilogy very much, but some of the events were curious, or the story did not connect itself -- a flow of continuity did not exist. And then there was the lack of compelling relationships and the abrupt endings, which is frustrating.

I think the idea behind the story of the Hunger Games is more interesting to me, still, and Collins discussed it at length in an interview. She incorporated the philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, stating that how we view human nature will determine the kind of government we think we need. 

Hobbes, in short, believed that humans were brutes and it was "every man against every man." Man required a "common power, a sovereign or absolute political authority" to rule over him. "In return for protection, we agree to give our obedience."

Locke believed that if man used reason, he could live in harmony with all. Thomas Jefferson was also of this opinion. They both understood that "government should protect the rights of the people," and if it failed, the people could replace it.

Rousseau believed men were motivated by self-love. But together in society, men moved toward a destructive form of self-love. (I really cut a lot out of this.) Long story short, his thinking led to the French Revolution and socialism. I see a lot of Rousseau's ideas in American society today. 

Three of Collin's characters each espouse or represent some of the concepts of the aforementioned philosophers. The author also injected a little Romanticism here and there, which celebrated individualism, emotion, nature, and nationalism. Romanticism wins the day in Collin's strong female characters throughout the story and well into the trilogy. 

In the end, Collins tried to make the case that Snow, who adopted the Hobbes worldview, was a result of his environment, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; but as I said, it was difficult to grasp, and it wasn't totally believable. 

But aside from that, it was a break from my complex reading, and that was good for me. I gave it three stars on GoodReads because I liked it. One time. And that's it. 

Suzanne Collins

2 comments:

  1. I very much enjoyed your discussion of the philosophy behind Collins' work! I haven't read this prequel to the series but when I first heard about it I was a little sceptical about whether Collins would be able to write an entire book about Snow, given how unsympathetic he is in the original series. It seems she didn't quite succeed...

    I definitely agree that her writing can be compelling, but sometimes falls apart towards the end as she struggles for a strong conclusion.

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    1. I like the philosophical ideas behind her story, too, but she does struggle with a strong finish. It was good for one read, but not a reread. I'd probably read the Hunger Games again, though.

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