When the first chapter of this prequel to superselling The Hunger Games was released, fans objected to the trilogy’s villain, the president Coriolanus Snow, being the hero. But even after 540 pages, Snow needs another episode to explain him. Popular 18-year-old Coriolanus becomes (64 years before the first book) a mentor in the 10th Hunger Games, the fight-to-the-death reality show sacrificing children. There is no Katniss, of course; Snow’s mentee is Lucy, a scrawny, brave singer of Covey heritage (like gypsies) who steals his heart and the show. There’s also a psychopathic doctor, a righteous friend, the threat of poverty, and Snow’s own ambition in the melange of his motives.
Whereas it was easy to root for Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of the trilogy, as she battled her way through the Games, it’s harder to do the same for Coriolanus, watching safely from the sidelines. He is ruthless and political throughout in his decisions both to help Lucy in the Games and to further his own designs. Could his heart be softened by Lucy? Could his gentle friend, Sejanus, help him on to a different path?
The plot of the novel rests on deception and pretence, its view of humanity bleak; yet Collins’s themes of friendship, betrayal, authority and oppression, as well as the extra layers of lore about mockingjays and Capitol’s history, will please and thrill.
This is a strange novel of two parts — a half-hearted love story between Lucy and Coriolanus as she enters the games, and the aftermath when Coriolanus is banished to District 12 to be a Peacekeeper. Coriolanus himself is an oddly curdled character, veering between empathy and ruthless ambition. Unlike the original trilogy, told from arrow-slinging heroine Katniss’s perspective, it’s not clear who we are supposed to be rooting for here, while the action of the Games is mostly played out from the perspective of a television viewer rather than on the ground of the arena. Coriolanus wrestles with his ambition, his loyalty to the Capitol and his affection for Lucy (‘‘He knew this would be easier if he wasn’t such an exceptional person,” he thinks, pompously) building to a strangely brutal conclusion.
The books and films of The Hunger Games franchise are a global phenomenon, and this prequel is undoubtedly one of the most anticipated YA books of recent years. The action begins 64 years before the events of the original trilogy, on the morning of the "reaping" of the 10th Hunger Games. No proof yet, but the revelation that it is the origin story of villainous president Coriolanus Snow has surprised fans. The hefty price point reflects the likely crossover into an adult readership.
As in the trilogy, the descriptions of the Games themselves — scenes in which blameless teenagers poison, beat, stab, trident and ax each other to death while adults debate tactics from afar — are hard to read but hard to turn away from. This is violence porn. It is disturbing that we find it so compelling. It also means that the book inevitably loses some of its propulsive bite when the Games end and the action moves out of the Capitol. Parts of the last fourth of the novel feel flat and desultory after the excitement we have just been through...
A Hunger Games without Everdeen might have seemed as peculiar as a Potter without Harry, but it works beautifully, largely thanks to a new character. The clever, charismatic precursor, Lucy Baird Gray, a Covey (a sort of gypsy) who is chosen to represent District 12 in the tenth Games. She is a folk singer of prophetic ballads and has thing about snakes. She is gorgeous, of course, in her late mother’s old rainbow dress (the casting for the film, confirmed by Lionsgate, will be fun)... We discover in the end who drummed up the idea for the Hunger Games tournament to begin with, and Collins leaves us with a cliffhanger that doesn’t just ask politely for another book, it prostrates itself and begs. Please don’t make us wait another decade.
The story that follows is engaging: the formula of the Games themselves provides an engine for creative detail, plot twist and peril. But Coriolanus and his mentee, Lucy Gray, are both pale imitations of Katniss, and the premise on which Collins builds their relationship – their mutual investment in her victory in the Games – is laughable. If they lose, one won’t get free university tuition; the other one will die. Collins is breaking the unbreakable sci-fi rule: however bizarre the world, its characters must behave like real people... What I think Collins intended her readers to take from The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is what the trauma of war can do to a person: how it can strip them of their essential humanity. What I took away was that she should stick to plucky heroes and dazzling plot-twists. When it comes to writing the murkiest backwaters of the human psyche, Collins is fathoms out of her depth.