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Sympathy for the Devil - A Review of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

A picture of a hardcover copy of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes sitting on an orange scarf next to a red rose, on a red background.
The funny thing about roses is that they have thorns. Image by the Author.

I'm not usually a huge fan of prequels to a completed series. When this book was announced, I'll admit, I was intrigued but not optimistic.

The Hunger Games trilogy was the catalyst for an entire generation of YA novel series and the instigator for the YA dystopian subgenre's sudden and continued mass popularity. Katniss' story of survival and rebellion against a tyrannical and scheming government, her struggles with mental and physical illness on top of the pressures thrown on her of being a figurehead in a war she was too young to fight, and her desperate fight to maintain the friendships and family bonds that drive her at the most basic level was absolutely astounding to me when I first read it. It remains one of my favorite series of all time and has become shockingly relevant in recent years.

Hearing that this new book was about one of the most interesting villains in recent memory was an instant draw for me. President Snow, the snake-like, cunning, and terrifying iron-grip leader of Panem was a genius character in the original series; he's given a depth and disturbingly logical reasoning that resonated with me in many disquieting ways. His relaxed, appropriately frosty disposition toward the Tributes and later the rebels made him a nearly James Bond-esque villain without the camp. He was smart, he knew how power worked, he knew how to call out sympathy from his audience, and, most terrifyingly, he was realistic.

Hearing more about his childhood? I was all for it, but I was terrified. Collins had created an amazing villain; would his childhood story ruin it?

The Sympathetic Villain Protagonist

Collins really had her work cut out for her with this premise. It's extremely difficult to write from the villain's perspective for a few reasons, especially when writing YA.

Firstly, she had to be careful not to undermine Katniss' struggles. This meant that she couldn't have Snow solve everything; she had a set timeline to work within and certain boundaries and events that needed to happen. Panem had to continue the Hunger Games to its 74th anniversary, Snow had to become the cruel and conniving president, and he had to be as unsympathetic as possible to the districts' people. This meant she needed to tell his story with the audience's foreknowledge and expectations in mind.

Coryo (because his cousin couldn't pronounce Coriolanus when she was little) is a child of war. He lost his mother to illness, his father to the war effort, his home to poverty and destruction. The only thing he still has going for him when we meet him in the Academy is his image. Even now, he's smooth, well-spoken, intelligent, and a brilliant manipulator, and it's all built from the instinct of survival. In the first few chapters alone, we're shown this child and his cousin sharing inside jokes and needing comfort. They go to school, they try to find food, they care for and about their grandmother. They're normal children in a downtrodden country recovering from war, and for a while, you practically forget that you know what he'll become.

But occasionally, you're hit with subtle but hard-hitting reminders. Coryo's cousin, the sweet, defiantly optimistic seamstress? Tigress, who will become one of the most well-known costume designers for the Games before she alters herself into a truly tiger-ish appearance, retreats into obscurity, and helps the rebel cause. His barely-mentioned classmate whose family is a little pompous? Hilarious Heavensbee, relative to Plutarch Heavensbee, Head Gamemaker for the 75th annual Hunger Games and conspirator with the rebels. His mother's compact, and his grandmother's garden? Become his signature sickly sweet rose perfume. It's impossible to separate this story from the future, which leads to a fascinating inner conflict.

What's stranger is our insight into Coryo's mind. He has normal cares and interests - he likes homemade cookies and swimming and cares about his grades - but he's also got the seeds of the mentality that will become his downfall. He's obsessed with his family's and his country's image, he considers district people barely more than animals, and his views on war are skewed by the trauma he experienced in it in a way that Tigris' and many of his classmates' views are not. He's already scheming for power and hungers for it more than anything else, but now we know why - he never wants his family to suffer like he did ever again.

The inner conflict created by the small foreshadowing moments is intensified by this. We understand what Coryo wants, and see how he becomes Snow, because those really are two different characters. This child of war is twisted into a domineering tyrant by a need for control over his circumstances that spirals out of control.

Lucy Gray Baird

The character that caught my attention more than anyone else in the book was Coryo's tribute. She's the girl from District 12, from a family with nothing at all, whose reaping was amplified by an act of defiance that continued in the Games. Sound familiar?

I was struck by how similar Lucy Gray was to Katniss without being identical. It was like seeing a ghost - this girl who isn't Katniss, but sings her songs and has her fighting spirit. At first, I thought she must be this book's antagonist (not villain - she would be going against Snow, who, at that point, was still the villain in my eyes). This caught me off-guard; had Collins completely flipped the script? I was seeing things from Snow's eyes, so it only made sense to establish why he hated Katniss so vehemently.

But as the book went on, Lucy Gray was working with, and even falling for, Coryo even as I watched him turning into Snow. The further their relationship went, the more I felt like I was pounding on the glass, screaming at her to be careful, but knowing all the while that she couldn't hear me. It was terrifying! I wanted to save her from the man I knew he'd become, but at the same time, Coryo was falling for her, dreaming of keeping her safe, even of running away with her, from the Capitol and all its responsibilities. So what happened? Where did it all go wrong?

Well, without spoiling the ending of the book, it's enough to say that greed and ambition overran Snow's "love" for Lucy Gray. Snow thinks that he loves her because he sees her as beautiful, and knows that she trusts him. Lucy Gray is a prize in Snow's eyes. While Coryo, young and naive, might think he loves her because she seems to stand above the rest of the tributes, Snow thinks that because he "won" her by saving her in the games, Lucy Gray is rightfully his. His love, his girl, his trophy, his, his, his.

But Lucy Gray belongs to no one. Lucy Gray is charming and sweet, an excellent performer and a cunning strategist. She's brilliant, she's resourceful, she's a survivor, and she's on his level...and that's her downfall.

Snow Lands on Top

The most terrifying thing about this book is how much sense it makes. Collins has written an incredibly convincing narcissist; Snow is, as I said, obsessed with power and image. He even comes right out and tells us what he values.

"What was there to aspire to once wealth, fame, and power had been eliminated? Was the goal of survival further survival and nothing more?" - Suzanne Collins, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

To Snow, nothing matters but getting more. More wealth so that he's comfortable, more fame so that he's secure, and more power so that he can't be hurt again. This is an all-too-real motivation, and it rings with the eerie sound of modern politics and economic striation. It's not as if any of these things are bad; who hasn't dreamed about being rich and famous once in a while? Who doesn't want the worry of affording your next meal and the roof over your head wiped away?

No, what's chilling about Snow is that he quite literally doesn't see the point of living without these things. While Lucy Gray just wants to be free and safe, Snow wants to be the only one in control of his life, above people and society and nature itself, and ultimately, this is what tears them apart.

Snow's story plays out like a classic Greek tragedy; his fatal flaw is his stubborn, misplaced pride in his family's name and his ever-growing need to be in complete and utter control, and this is what tears him apart. For Snow, things end the way they started: a girl from District 12 with a spirit and drive that no one can control, and the sparks of a rebellion that refuse to be silenced.

What a beautiful echoing stanza to close out the song.

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