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Panem, the dystopian nation in which Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games novels are set, was always less a politically plausible totalitarian state than a fever dream of adolescent persecution. The four blockbuster movies based on the original Hunger Games trilogy, by making Panem visible, have also obscured the vaporous, hallucinatory quality of Collins’ world-building. In the novels, the cameras that record every move of her teenaged protagonists are omnipresent yet invisible, like the eye of God. But how, exactly, do they work? What powers and controls them? And how can a society capable of producing such Space Age marvels be so technologically backward in other ways?
Does any of this matter? Not really. The torments of youth—of negotiating a world of cruel peers and arbitrary adult power and hypocrisy—bind together the elements of The Hunger Games more fiercely than a more fully imagined alternate reality ever could. The books make no political or sociological sense, but their emotional coherence is bulletproof.
That is to say, their binding element is Katniss Everdeen, a heroine whose virtues are involuted to say the least. In order to be good in an acceptably selfless feminine way, Katniss must not want too much of anything: power, fame, fancy clothes, the admiration of cute boys. So in order for the reader to vicariously enjoy these pleasures, they must be forced upon her, even as Katniss insists that all she cares about is her family and a quiet life. (Each novel in the trilogy features at least one scene in which Katniss, a simple country maiden named after a wildflower, is compelled to undergo a glamorous makeover described in great detail.) I confess, I soon tired of Katniss, who seems too good to be either true or very interesting, but then she was not designed for me. She was designed to suffer through no fault of her own, and in her suffering to embody the trials of every adolescent thrust into this fallen, adult-made world.
Collins’ new novel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the origin story of Coriolanus Snow, the villainous president Katniss battles in the trilogy, seems to have been written for people like me. True, it lacks the trilogy’s commercial canniness. Gone is the crisp, action-packed pacing of The Hunger Games, and the epigraphs featuring quotes from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Wordsworth, and Mary Shelley suggest that success has filled Collins with a perhaps overly optimistic sense of how much philosophical weight a YA novel (or, really, any novel) can bear. But The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes nevertheless constitutes a bold move on Collins’ part. In the trilogy, Snow appears as a vampiric monster, pale and smelling of blood and roses, his sadism so baroque and unflagging that his claim to be merely interested in upholding order rings false. This is, at least, how Katniss sees him, as the personification of absolute evil—and of absolute authority.
Exploring a villain’s origins is far less common in YA fiction than it is in other areas of pop culture. Snow, being prosaically old and in charge, lacks either the dark mystery of Darth Vader or the rebellious élan of the Joker. Unlike those characters, he has no fanbase. Readers of YA are famously finicky in their demand for likable protagonists, and there is zero chance that anyone who ends up as the ghastly President Snow in The Hunger Games will have much appeal as a vicarious best friend. Collins seemingly has little interest in demonstrating how alienation and a series of traumas can lead to a character’s romantically tragic embrace of evil. Her Coriolanus (or Coryo, as his friends and family call him), although wronged in some instances, doesn’t invite pity. As the quotes in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ epigraph indicate, Collins wants to explore the tension between nature and nurture in transforming Coryo into the vile creature he becomes. Was he born that way, or did the world write malevolence on the blank slate of his self?
For more on The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, listen to a spoiler-filled discussion between Laura Miller and Sam Adams on Slate’s Spoiler Specials podcast.
At the beginning of the novel, 64 years before the events in The Hunger Games, Coryo struggles to put together a presentable outfit for the reaping ceremony for the 10th Hunger Games at the Academy, a private school for the scions of the Capitol’s leading families. Coryo, his grandmother, and his cousin Tigris are all that remain of the once-exalted Snow clan in the aftermath of the First Rebellion, an uprising in the districts against the ruling central metropolis.
Part Siege of Leningrad, part the Blitz, the assault of the districts on the Capitol was so prolonged and devastating that Coryo remembers seeing corpses in the streets—and a starving neighbor carving a leg from one of them before skulking back into the dark. (If you find yourself wondering how the hardscrabble districts managed to get the equipment required to carpet bomb the Capitol, stop right there. The point is the abject, incessant vulnerability of people who are the targets of sustained bombing campaigns, not whether such a campaign is believable in this world.) Parts of the city still lie in rubble, and Coryo himself can barely remember what a full belly feels like. “No one would ever let him have enough,” he thinks, with more than just food on his mind.
The majority of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes recounts the 10th Hunger Games, in which for the first (and only) time, Academy students were paired with tributes as “mentors.” For Coryo, desperate to nab any advantage while concealing his poverty from the other members of his class, every chance to excel at the Academy has become a potential lifeline. Believing that “charm” is “his only real currency,” he must negotiate a gantlet of authority figures who seem alternately neglectful, hostile, or, in the case of head Gamemaker Volumnia Gaul, a creepy scientist who spouts Hobbesian social theory, insane. Coryo believes that his breeding makes him superior to his classmate, Sejanus Plinth, the son of a wealthy munitions magnate from District 2, but he befriends him for reasons that are a muddle of self-interest, loneliness, and genuine affection.
The solidification of Coryo’s personality out of this contradictory mix is the core of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes—not the video game–like challenges of the Hunger Games or the intrigues of the last third of the novel, which takes place in District 12, Katniss’ birthplace. Assigned to mentor Lucy Gray, a member of a once roving band of musical entertainers called the Covey, Coryo veers between calculation and tenderness. He wants Lucy to win the Hunger Games because that will help him get into (and afford) the university, but he also comes to care for her. Often he can’t untangle the two motives.
Coryo is rarely sincere, but then who is in a world of entrenched privilege masquerading as a meritocracy? A friend asked me if I thought The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, being a portrait of a tyrant as a young man, might be a veiled commentary on Trump. But Coryo is no vulgar, narcissistic bully and parvenu. The closer parallel is collective—to America itself, frantically trying to live up to past glories and cover up past sins. Coryo looks the part of a hero, and he seems capable of decency, although more often than not other people read it into actions he’s chosen out of selfishness. At various pivots in the novel’s plot, he picks a course that can be interpreted either way, but it’s obviously only a matter of time until he faces a starker decision.
Most people, and that includes most readers, are more like Coryo than the blameless and noble Katniss, and that makes his story, with its petty resentments, flashes of generosity, and moral failures truly (rather than aspirationally) identifiable. It also makes The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes a true novel, in the 19th-century sense, Balzac compared with the adventure yarn and romance of The Hunger Games. Its psychological realism will surely disappoint many fans of the earlier trilogy, and somewhere in the middle I did find myself growing impatient with Coryo’s ceaseless machinations. The stakes seemed low, and Lucy Gray the more obvious choice as a hero. But finally, particularly in the last section set in District 12, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes found its feet, maneuvering Coryo toward his moment of truth. The Hunger Games describes how life often feels to teenagers: a horror show endured in a state of total, excruciating surveillance. But The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes describes how most lives are actually lived, the consequences of countless small choices that ultimately amount to a big one: not just how to feel but who to be.
Correction, May 21: This article originally misspelled Coriolanus Snow’s nickname.