The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Greg from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as I drove the 900-something miles from Maryland to Florida and it was better than I thought it would be. Ms Collins has avoided most of the annoying tropes that often plague prequels. There aren’t too many of what I call “cute” moments (eg in the Star Wars prequels seeing the Death Star original plans). Mostly those are limited to District 12 once again being the focus, the Hanging Tree song’s origins, an appearance of the katniss plant, and the origins of Mockingjays.
All too often (Disney live action prequels) when we get a prequel involving a villain from the main book/movie/etc, we get some tragic backstory that excuses their evil behavior. Your mileage may vary, but I didn’t find that to be the case with Coreolanus (spelling? I only listened to it) Snow. He was always kind of a pretentious snot who viewed everything in terms of saving face for the Snow family instead of just doing what’s right. In fact, his friend-by-default (the kid from District 2) ends up making choices like Holden in The Expanse, but with less successful results.
That said, we do get a view of what happened to The Capitol during the war and siege by the districts during the war that leads to The Hunger Games. While it doesn’t excuse the creation of The Hunger Games (that goes to a one-dimensional villain in Dr Gall), it certainly goes some way towards explaining why the citizens were willing to go along with the formation of the games.
Speaking of The Games. Ms Collins was clearly spoofing Reality TV when she created the original trilogy. This book has her reverse engineering how the games got to that point. The 10th games (the one happening during this book) finds folks throughout Panem not really paying attention to the games, making them pointless. They are supposed to sow distrust among the districts (similar to the point of the game at the center of Battle Royale – a Japanese book with almost the same plot (but not the reality TV angle), but which Collins claims not to have read or heard of when she wrote Hunger Games). So Dr. Gall has the senior class at the academy devise ways to make the games more exciting and, by the end of the book, we have most of the innovations that are in place by the 74th games that make up the first game of the original trilogy.
If there’s one negative thing I can say about the book it’s that the way it’s paced, I was astonished near the end when Snow mentions that so much had happened to him over the past 2 months. I thought it’d been at least half year by that time. I mean, Collins definitely gives you the dates that you can use as time points, but these 2 months contain SO MUCH that it seems so much more time has passed.
The best thing I can say about the book is that I wasn’t looking forward to it (see the intro paragraphs about how often prequels disappoint) and I pretty quickly found myself unable to stop listening. Collins does a good job of making each story beat lead directly into the next. This doesn’t mean it’s perfect and I’m sure that Hunger Games geeks will find plenty to pick at, but I found it a lot of fun.
If you liked the original trilogy, don’t mind YA, and want to get a little more background on Panem and The Hunger Games, it’s a good read. (Also a good listen)
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