This, apparently, is what happens when I have whole weeks off of work: I read all day and post without rhyme or reason. I honestly was going to get something accomplished today but then my scheduled reading time spiraled out of control and long story short I’m now 192 pages into The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.
For those not in the know, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the prequel to the Hunger Games trilogy, in which children from twelve districts fight to the death for the pleasure of the privileged. The Hunger Games started as a form of war indemnity extracted from the districts but evolved into a spectacle-driven circus over the 75 years they were held, until they eventually fused into a bizarre cross between a battle royale and a beauty pageant. Songbirds and Snakes explores the origins of Coriolanus Snow, the cruel, money-grubbing showman who serves as the main villain in the original trilogy, and shows how the Games began to evolve from war punishment to murder pageant.
I don’t remember if Snow’s origin story was mentioned at all in Mockingjay and I don’t feel like reading it again just for the sake of checking, but as far as I can tell there hasn’t been any retconning so far. Of course, my memory of the original trilogy is hazy at best because I last read it sometime around 2013, so if anything’s been retconned I probably won’t catch it unless it’s fairly major. In any case, he doesn’t start as a despotic showman; he starts as an ambitious, controlling 18-year-old whose wealthy family has fallen on extremely hard times following an almost decade-long war between the districts and the Capitol. He is given a coveted position as a mentor in the 10th annual Hunger Games but finds himself stuck mentoring Lucy Gray Baird, the female tribute from District 12, whose tributes generally die in the first five minutes of the Games. As of page 192, he has made friends with her, and has also (extremely predictably) developed a crush on her, which may or may not be unrequited.
The good stuff first, because there’s less of that: I don’t hate it. I feel more positively disposed towards it than I did by page 192 of Mockingjay. I thought it would be boring and/or hard to get through, based on what others have said, but it goes by pretty quickly. I like that there’s an unintentional mini Hunger Games, with tributes and mentors dying like flies even before the official Games even start. It would’ve been easy for Collins to rehash the original trilogy, but Songbirds and Snakes is actually quite different so far. I like that the Capitol residents aren’t entirely the depraved hedonists they are by Katniss’s time; they may be overprivileged and oblivious, but at least some of them are still aware that the Hunger Games are backwards and barbaric. I like Lucy Gray. I thought that either she was going to get killed in the arena or Suzanne Collins was going to retcon the ending to let her win because I was for some reason convinced that Haymitch was District 12’s only victor, but I checked my copy of The Hunger Games and it does say that District 12 has had two victors in its history, one of whom is (1) dead and (2) unnamed. I’ll be pretty surprised if she doesn’t win, but this is the series that killed Finnick Odair for absolutely no reason, so I suppose it’s anybody’s game.
And now the bad stuff, which can be summed up in one overarching question: Why do we need to humanize President Snow?
I cannot get behind him as a protagonist. I cannot think of him as Coryo, as his family and classmates call him, or even as Coriolanus. He’s President Snow. He will always be President Snow. I don’t care how much he loves his family or how much he suffered in the war because, thanks to the original trilogy, I already know he’ll lose all his redeeming features over the next 64 years. I already know he’s going to commit horrific crimes against his own people. I already know he’s going to sell future Hunger Games victors into sexual slavery. I already know he’s going to dress up the horror of the Games in bright lights and fashion. I already know that no matter how much he may love Lucy Gray, HE’S STILL GOING TO KEEP THE GAMES RUNNING ANYWAY.
This, for me, is the biggest problem in this whole “President Snow is a person too!” narrative. The opportunity to tell his story is a grace he doesn’t deserve, because he’s still going to become probably the most heinous war criminal in Panem history. No one is going to force him into this. This is something he’s going to choose to become, over and over and over again. It’s something he chooses with every crime he commits against the people he’s supposed to protect. The seeds of it are there from the beginning of the book, where he is introduced as a haughty private school brat who’s more worried about the state of his shirt than he is about the state of his country. He spends the first chapter whining about having nothing to eat but cabbage soup, about the damage to the one good shirt that fits him, about his Very Bad Prospects if he fails to produce a Hunger Games victor. Don’t get me wrong: he’s up against some very serious problems. His future and his finances are no laughing matter, but, as much as he complains, he still has food, clothes, and family. He lives in a penthouse, goes to school, has a reasonable chance of getting into college, and has enough social standing to obtain favors from the right people. He is able-bodied and doesn’t appear to suffer from any mental illnesses. His physical needs are more or less adequately met and he will never find himself fighting for his life in the murder arena, which is a damn sight more than children from the districts can say. He does have a fractured relationship with the dean of his Academy, who seems to be out to get him, but that’s his own stupid fault. Cry me a river, dude, because I have no sympathy.
I will say that he’s gotten better over the course of the story, but, again, this doesn’t mean much because it’s going to be straight downhill from here. It’s a little too early to tell if he’s going to come out of this as a hero or not, but, given that he’s going to become the Panem version of Hitler, this seems unlikely. My best guess – and biggest fear – is that the general rationale behind his whole story is going to be something along the lines of “He was really poor for a few years and the girl he liked kicked the bucket, which is why he went crazy.” Because, make no mistake, something is going to happen to Lucy Gray. Even if she wins the Games, which she may very well end up doing by default, I don’t see this having a happy ending. I don’t see Snow ending up as a happily married man. At best he may find some temporary happiness with Lucy Gray, but whatever he gets isn’t going to last unless Collins has planted a major retcon at the end. (For the record, I hope she hasn’t, because that would be beyond lame.) The people in the Capitol generally have this “If you hit us, we hit back twice as hard” mentality, and I’m pretty sure that’s going to be a major factor in Snow’s evolution from schoolboy to tyrant. Of course, it’s equally probable that he’s going to betray and/or abandon Lucy Gray if he finds himself forced to choose between her and his own advancement, which he most likely will at some point.
However this ends up playing out, I can’t reconcile my knowledge of Snow’s future with his (relatively) innocuous present. I’m not okay with him being given a chance to tell his side of a story that should only ever be one-sided. Obviously he’s human just like everyone else and he didn’t spring fully formed from his father’s head, but some origin stories are better left untouched.
P.S. If you’ve already finished the book, don’t tell me what happens.