Arts and Entertainment

Review: ‘The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ sheds light on one of the greatest villains in YA novels

The “Hunger Games” books may be over a decade old, but their impact on modern culture has undoubtedly lingered. Its impact is seen in more recent movies and the symbolic anti-authority symbols still used in some uprisings worldwide. Now, a new “Hunger Games” novel has been released, this time focusing on the antagonist of the…
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/alicewonder16/" target="_self">Anna Holden</a>

Anna Holden

January 3, 2021

The “Hunger Games” books may be over a decade old, but their impact on modern culture has undoubtedly lingered. Its impact is seen in more recent movies and the symbolic anti-authority symbols still used in some uprisings worldwide. Now, a new “Hunger Games” novel has been released, this time focusing on the antagonist of the books, President Coriolanus Snow. 

President Snow is, from a writer’s perspective, a perfect villain. He is fun but not silly, scary and formidable, but not unbeatable. He has a genuine connection with the protagonist that makes their time together comfortable and interesting to read. He’s also a fascinating character and isn’t just an obstacle in the protagonist’s way.

Snow has a serious personality, and I love him for that. He’s easily my favorite antagonist in any young adult franchise, outclassing villains from other popular series such as Voldemort or Jeanine Matthews. I was understandably hyped to hear he was getting his own book. “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” did not disappoint and even exceeded my expectations. 

It isn’t easy to have a villain of a series, especially a villain who is very famous even among those relatively unfamiliar with the “Hunger Games”, transform into a hero. The audience comes in with a bias against a villain, rightly deserved, of course.

Suzanne Collins, the mastermind behind the “Hunger Games” series, seems to understand this, as her new book does not go out of its way to frame Coriolanus as a hero at all. Coriolanus Snow opens the book as a spoiled 18-year-old rich boy who feels he hasn’t been paid his dues.

He spends his time being somewhat manipulative to his fellow high school students, lamenting how far the mighty Snow family had fallen since the war ten years ago and how he’s going to scrape together enough money for college once his senior year is over. His only hope is to become a mentor in the 10th Hunger Games and have his name attached to the winning Tribute.

Even once the younger version of his character is established, and he becomes closely aligned with a protagonist, the reader never feels compelled to like him as a person or even approve of his actions. Still, as time goes on, you start to root for him. After all, he has all the traits that the reader loves to hate in the original trilogy.

He is intelligent, devious, not above climbing over others to get his way, and utterly determined to quell anyone he perceives as in his way. But that isn’t what makes him a character to feel for or to wish him victory. In fact, despite being the viewpoint character, Coriolanus isn’t really the protagonist. It’s his Tribute, Lucy Gray Baird, the female from District 12. 

Lucy Gray is a strange and fun character, but her little similarities to the beloved Katniss Everdeen from the first books really make the reader connect with her. Beyond being the female Tribute from 12, she is smart with survivalist tendencies and a knack for music, as well as a penchant for living off the land. The similarities aren’t surface level or overly obvious, as the two are quite different in most respects.

Still, Lucy Gray undoubtedly reminds the reader of Katniss, just as Katniss undoubtedly reminded 82-year-old President Coriolanus of Lucy Gray. She is similar to Katniss in that she wins her Games and becomes the first Victor from District 12. One of the ways she differs from Katniss is that she and Coriolanus are quite close and even in love for much of the book.

Coriolanus isn’t the character you root for in most cases, but given how he is tied to Lucy Gray, you want him to win because she wins when he does. You root for her in the Games, you feel for her when she returns home to her District slightly changed, and you want her to have a happy ending, which she wants to spend with Coriolanus.

Even when you know it can’t be since you’ve read the books set sixty years later and know what happens to Coriolanus, you want to see the two of them run off together into the sunset for a happily ever after. That’s part of what makes this book so moving and, in the end, so tragic. 

That’s also what makes this so fascinating as a backstory for a villain. In many backstories, authors frame their villains as victims, claiming hardship calloused them into the way they are in the main series. But Collins makes no such excuses for Coriolanus.

The traits that make him a villain are already present at the beginning of the book. In many ways, he was destined for dictatorship, but that isn’t where he sees his life going when he starts. “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is not his tragic backstory that makes the reader feel sorry for how his life turned out.

It is only the push that puts him on the path to becoming a despot. The series of crossroads that his life offers him leads him from Coriolanus to President Snow. That’s what makes this book special, especially among villain backstories.

The book doesn’t stop at Coriolanus’s backstory. It also presents the backstory of how the Hunger Games evolve as a sport and means of punishing the Districts. It explains the infusion of music into the poverty-stricken coal-stained culture of District 12. It even explains the war that led to the creation of the Games and the (believed) destruction of District 13.

This book ties up so many loose ends that it is a tapestry woven with the strings of previous “Hunger Games” books. Ever wonder who that mysterious first Victor from 12 referenced in a half-sentence from the first book is? Or who wrote the infamous ‘Hanging Tree’ song?

Or even when betting was introduced to the Games? This book has all the answers for diehard “Hunger Games” fans while still being enough of a stand-alone book to satisfy newcomers. It is an example of writing a fantastic backstory and a standout volume in an already amazing series.

So dust off your Mockingjay pin, fling that braid over your shoulder, and prepare to cry over Rue’s death all over again, because “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is 100% worthy of your attention and will undoubtedly prompt a reread of the whole series with all this new knowledge in hand. It is an example of fantastic writing, excellent backstory, and how to turn a book no one was expecting into an addition every fan needs. Happy reading, and may the odds be ever in your favor.