It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capitol, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to outcharm, outwit, and outmaneuver his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute.
People who love finding out the back stories in fictional universes—why Sherlock Holmes wears a deerstalker hat; where Indiana Jones got his scar—will relish the chance to learn these details ... 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.
... builds on the original series’ overt critique of violence and those who perpetuate it, again in terms that speak to a more mature audience than their young-adult marketing might suggest. But where Katniss was a heroine whose flaws were laid bare as she came into her own, Coriolanus sometimes feels reverse-engineered to fit his older mold, and the novel doesn’t fully explain the roots of his at-any-costs ambition ... For true fans of The Hunger Games, Collins shines most as she weaves in tantalizing details that lend depth to the gruesome world she created in the original series and Coriolanus’s place in its history.
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 ... 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 ... 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.