Let me take you back to a meeting held one year ago in the editorial offices of Scholastic Books:
Editor: Ladies, I fervently believe that the YA dystopian novel has not burned itself out yet! Even in these unsettled times, young people are spoiled and complacent. They love to read about worlds where adults have screwed everything up and where the only hope for salvation comes when the children shall lead. I need more output, and so I turn to the three of you, the best of the best, for new ideas before the Christmas rush. Pitch to me, girls!
J.K. Rowling: I started jotting some notes down last night for an eighth book in the series. I call it Harry Potter and the Ungrateful Wretches. It centers on a young witch named Jo, who uncovers a plot by evil men to fake a gender switch in order to sneak into ladies’ lounges and look up their knickers. When she brings the news to Harry, he laughs at her and mocks her in the press. Hermione calls the poor girl a bigot! After all she’s done for them –
Editor: Ms. Rowling, you really have to get a grip! You’re on the wrong side of this –
Rowling: I’m going to bring back He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and reassess exactly how villainous he really was –
Editor: Enough! (pause) Sad. Very sad. Moving on to you, Ms. Collins.
Suzanne Collins: Sorry, I was just Googling myself. I’m worth 80 million!
Editor: How nice for you!
Collins: My trilogy made 20 mill in book sales, and the movies have grossed almost three billion!
Editor: Yes, I know, but –
Rowling: The Potter books made 7.7 billion –
Editor: All right –
Rowling: And since every film grossed nearly a billion, how much does that make? Let’s see: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – . . .
Collins: I created the most beloved heroine since Anne of Green Gables!
Rowling: . . . 5 – 6 – . . .
Collins: Action! Intrigue! And romance beyond compare. What did you give us? Cho Chang –
Rowling: . . . 7 – 8 –
Collins: You hate trans people!!!
Editor: (yelling) That’s it! Settle down, you two, or I’ll have you both thrown out. (Pause) Now, Suzanne, do you have an idea to throw at me?
Collins: Of course! Everyone has been so fascinated by my world-building that I thought I’d continue by giving you a prequel about Panem.
Editor: A prequel?
Collins: Katniss Everdeen’s life story is complete. But the reading world still has questions: what sort of war tore America apart? What caused the Hunger Games to be? What made President Snow the man he is today?
Rowling: All questions you might have answered if you did a little planning before you wrote.
Collins: Avada kedavra, you b- !
Editor: Cut it out, both of you! So . . . you want to write a book about Coriolanus Snow?
Collins: The fans will eat it up . . . and I’ve already sold the film rights.
Editor: Hmmmm . . . Okay let’s let that lay there for a minute. Turning to you, Ms. Roth –
Veronica Roth: Wow! I’m just so honored to be part of this esteemed company. I enjoyed reading both of you so much when I was a little girl. Obviously, you both inspired me to be a writer myself, which explains how I wrote the first book of my Divergent trilogy during winter break at Northwestern and landed on the Celebrity 100 list.
Collins: Ho hum.
Rowling: Been there, done that.
Editor: Shhhhhh! (Pause) Your pitch, Ms. Roth?
Roth: My new series will take place in an alternate world where an authoritarian ruler has laid waste to the rule of law. He has used his power to separate the population into factions that are at war with each other –
Editor: Not . . . not smart ones, brave ones, nice ones –
Rowling: . . . Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Slitherin . . .
Collins: . . . District 1, District 2, District 3 –
Roth: No, you guys! I’m talking about the divisions we have now: the black, brown and white, the gay vs. the straight, men vs. women – all whirling about in a society where they should pull together and practice equal rights for all. Yet they are manipulated to believe that there isn’t enough to go around and so they must battle each other for a share of the pie. Oh, and there are aliens.
Editor: (after a pause) Hmmmmmmmm. Bleak. Is that what young people really want to read? (Thinking it through as only an editor can) After careful thought, I think we’ll go with Ms. Collins’ pitch. Maybe you can make Coriolanus Snow likable enough to sustain us through a good read. Get working on it, Suzanne. Give us yet another Games. And may the odds be ever in your favor.
And that’s how I ended up reading The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Suzanne Collins’ fourth book in The Hunger Games series, a prequel to the story told in her tremendously successful trilogy.
To be honest, if the above pitch meeting had truly occurred, I probably would have picked Collins over the others anyway. Rowling’s seven book Harry Potter series captured the literary zeitgeist four ten years (1997 – 2007), and between the Pottermore website, the hit play (which I hate), the new Fantastic Beasts films and the theme parks, she has managed to never stray far from the public consciousness. However, that celebrity took a recent dark turn, with Rowling putting her foot in it but good with her blatant disregard for trans people.
And Roth was never in the running for me. Sure, she managed to create a best seller while still at university, and it makes sense, given her target audience, that her world-building would be steeped in adolescent sensibilities. However, the idea that evil adults would rebuild society in the form of cafeteria cliques is so ludicrous to me that I simply can’t buy it. At least when Rowling created her houses, the smart people weren’t the villains.
I liked The Hunger Games a lot. In Katniss Everdeen, we had a powerful heroine, armed with skills, cunning, and a strong moral sense. Yes, some of the book made much of her romantic struggles with the boys next door, but ultimately the novel focused on a girl who listened to advice and figured things out and who, when she acted impulsively, didn’t always make things worse. Harry Potter was never the brightest or bravest bulb in the room. He may have been “The Chosen One,” but it took a lot of help and readjustment of his own preconceived notions about people to push him over the finish line. Katniss already possessed incredible human qualities, albeit in their raw form: the love of family, the willingness to sacrifice for others, the capacity to love. The games made her better at all of these plus they established her as a force for the Capitol to reckon with.
I also liked Catching Fire because it did what a good second book in a three-book series should do: it expanded the world-building and raised the emotional stakes. Katniss’ individual rebellion at the end of Book One made her a hero of the people and a formidable enemy, but it didn’t improve her life much. In fact, it created a whole slew of juicy new problems. And if the games portion of that book has a slight air of “rerun” about it, Collins makes good use of the parallels between the Hunger Games and reality series like Survivor by creating a “celebrity edition” and upping the stakes for both the contestants, the rebel forces many of them represent, and the establishment represented by President Snow.
As for the final book, Mockingjay, well . . . it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. The first half that took place in District Thirteen boded well but took a long time to get through. It’s the only time in the trilogy where Katniss herself seems to be in stasis, while everyone around her tries to figure out what to do. Then we get to the Capitol, and this time the action feels a little hackneyed: is holding games the only strategy this enemy can come up with? Is it worth destroying half the city to provide us with these gross out action sequences? It is redeemed a bit at the very end, where Katniss makes a final decision that illustrates her understanding that enemies come in all shapes, and where she and Peeta are given the ending they deserve.
“Damn you, Peeta! I’m much cuter, and I never had a chance!” “Suck it, Gale!”
One thing that was given short shrift throughout was the reason for all this. Since we have been made aware that Panem used to be the United States, several questions come to mind that one hopes would be answered:
- What was the rationale for dividing the U.S. into twelve districts and a capitol – class? economics? (Does the Capitol represent the 1%?)
- Where exactly does the rest of the world come into all this?
- Who thought up the hunger games, and why?
- How could the games sustain themselves for seventy-five years, both as a punishment and, even more, as an entertainment?
- Why do these people have such funny names?
Sadly, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes only tackles the third question and maybe touches on the fourth. Along the way, we learn that even the 1% struggled during and after the war. With twelve angry blue collar districts fighting against them, the tiny Rocky Mountain capitol city was perpetually blitzed with bombs and squeezed of essential supplies. Food was so scarce that many resorted to cannibalism. The lack of medicine resulted in the rise of plagues, like rabies.
This is all backstory, however. The book opens ten years after the war and establishes as its protagonist young Coriolanus Snow, future president of Panem but now a high school student living in abject poverty with his dotty grandmother and beautiful seamstress cousin Tigris (both his parents died in the war) in the ruins of their penthouse apartment. They subsist on tea, black market lima beans, and the shaky value of being what’s left of one of the most noble families. Coriolanus, who even now dreams of being president one day, depends for his success on winning a scholarship to the University and proving himself to the sadistic, drug-addled professors who run his school and the city.
His chance comes when one of his professors, Dr. Volumnia Gaul, becomes the Head Gamemaker and decides that, after ten years of poor viewership, the Hunger Games need a makeover. She decides that each of the twenty-four tributes – a boy and a girl from each district selected by an annual lottery called the Reaping to be contestants – will be assigned a tribute from an elite group of students.
How in the world did Dr. Gaul – or, for that matter, author Collins – think this would be a good idea? For the fictional head of the Games, it means pairing up teenagers together, and from my experience the bonds between teens tend to transcend political and cultural barriers. You throw a bunch of kids together, and they will find things to like about each other, even if they are told that half of them are great and the other half are trash.
Collins has a bigger problem: with twenty-four tributes and twenty-four mentors, you’ve got forty-eight characters to sort out. And this doesn’t even include the adults in charge, their families and friends, and other assorted people we come across. How is Collins going to keep track of seventy or so people and get us emotionally invested in them?
In terms of the games, she doesn’t even try. The wholesale slaughter of tributes and mentors begins almost immediately, before the competition itself even starts. On the one hand, it’s interesting to see how primitive these early Games are. They closely resemble the ancient Roman gladiator combats that partially inspired Collins to create this world, except in these early incarnations, the combatants are not skilled in killing or in subterfuge; they’re just kids. It seems the public does not enjoy turning on their TVs and watching little boys and girls kill each other, so the Gamemakers brainstorm ways to improve the experience.
Here is where Coriolanus proves adept at TV production, if not much else. He knows how to play to the camera. Also, he comes up with the idea of letting people bet on tributes and even send gifts of food and water to them. Dr. Gaul hires a local comic/magician/weatherman, an ancestor of Caesar Flickerman from Games, to be the new emcee.
Thankfully, all this helps the ratings to rise because the games themselves sure don’t do anything for us here. I honestly couldn’t figure out what the gamemakers were there for most of the time. Essentially, the kids are thrown into an arena and told to kill each other. Most of the time, they hide in the inner recesses of the building, and only when they come out for food or water do they make themselves vulnerable to others. It’s hardly gripping television, as the boredom of the mentors throughout makes clear, and it doesn’t help that it’s all shown to us through the eyes of Coriolanus and his friends who, like us, watch the whole thing on TV. Hours literally go by with nothing happening, and the gamemakers do literally nothing to shift the action into gear until the very end – and that action is a hastily planned vengeance against the contestants for an act of rebellion.
It may seem like I’m giving away the whole plot, but honestly, the games are not the important part of this story. I think Collins is trying to show us how this experience sets Coriolanus on the path that will eventually lead to his becoming the president we all know and loathe. It does this by focusing on his relationship with his tribute, a young woman named Lucy Gray who hails from – you guessed it! – District 12. Initially angered by being assigned the girl from the weakest district, Coriolanus ultimately becomes intrigued, then obsessed, with his charge.
Katniss Everdeen was something of an outsider in her story, in that she refused to accept the domination of the Capitol in her life. From early poaching and black-market meat trading, she ultimately graduates to rebel leader. Lucy Gray is even more of an outlier: as a member of the Covey, a nomadic group of folk-singing gypsies that moves from one district to another, Lucy feels no emotional tie to the folks of District 12. Her skillset is different from that of Katniss: she possesses a beautiful voice and a charming personality. She also has a thing for snakes, which is fortunate because Collins drowns us in reptiles throughout the book.
Lucy’s beauty, talent, and spirit inspires a number of things in Coriolanus. He starts to believe they can win, and that could lead to a scholarship. And we are led to believe that this handsome, charming, popular boy who nevertheless lacks romantic experience or emotional maturity, falls kinda sorta hard for his tribute.
But here’s the problem with Coriolanus and with the book. The kid is a sociopath. Every decision he makes is for himself. Even the ones that benefit others benefit him more. Like Harry Potter, he tends to read most situations wrong; unlike Harry, Coriolanus possesses a surface charm and often stumbles upon the correct response to a social problem. The trajectory of his relationship with Lucy throughout the book is bizarre but hardly surprising. Even less original is the friendship he has with Sejanus, another student mentor and probably the most complex and sympathetic character in the book. Sejanus is so grateful for the attention that Coriolanus shows him, while our “hero” seethes with a combination of guilt and impatience at having to be the boy’s best friend. As circumstances throw these two together over and over, we sit back and wait for the inevitable New Testament-like betrayal, but by the time it happens, it leaves us cold.
As you can tell, I didn’t much like The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. The most refreshing thing is that Collins is going for more than mere lip service to the trilogy that inspired this book. She fills us in a bit more on the origin of the mockingjay, and she includes one little joke (involving swamp potatoes) that will make fans of the series smile. Mostly, she’s trying to take a familiar world and come up with something new.
However . . . In this era of Trump, I really don’t need to read the exploits of a Trump-like protagonist, who remains selfish and self-serving throughout. It’s not like Coriolanus is a basically good sort who, through circumstances not of his making, becomes a monster. He’s pretty much a self-serving creep, albeit a charming one, throughout. I also could have done with a lot less singing. I know, that’s Lucy Gray’s trade, and the title of the book itself reminds us that these 517 pages constitute a ballad that will lead to much pain and tragedy. If you decide to read it and, like me, you get a little tired of the selfish brat whose life you’re following, keep reminding yourself, “Katniss is a’coming!”
That’s a whole other, better, song.