Review: “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” by Suzanne Collins

Initial reaction: I think the key to getting through this book is whether you can tolerate Snow’s viewpoint enough to see some of the better parts of this story. (There are few and far between.)

If you can, you’ll likely be like me and just barely survive this read. If not, run like the wind Bullseye, because this will add absolutely nothing to the series for you, save some background on the forming of the games, the 10th Hunger Games as viewed from a soulless teenager with his own motivations, and well, what we all know already in that Snow is just…ugh.

That’s not worth a 600 page or 16 hour slog in my eyes.

Full review:

(The following song/poem was actually penned by me, I haven’t written one in a while, so I’ll leave it here without comment.)

*strums lute*

When a Tyrant was just a boy,
He thought of everyone as his toy,
A means to an end.
He had no parents in his life,
Caught by the twists and turns of strife,
A bitter heart left to mend.

But then She came with a song,
Voice loud and proud and ever strong.
He was enraptured by her charm.
But then came the Hunger Games
Bodies fell quick, lost to time their names
Their flesh was cold, while hers still warm.

She held his heart in her hand,
And among the Districts, in demand
If but for the time of a fleeting Mockingjay’s wing.
But as Fate twisted its hand,
The Tyrant’s birth would take command
With all the chaos that would bring…

*finishes strumming lute*

Ooh, the temptation of writing a full lyric review for this book because of the songs/poetry was strong. I’m finding upon finishing this book that I’m too winded from the experience to find ways of being more creative (other than the above), so I’ll just cut to the chase. This is going to be a longer discussion, because I’m feeling a certain kind of way after finishing this.

I don’t think it’s any secret that many people were excited about a prequel to the successful Hunger Games series. I was cautiously optimistic. Then the news dropped as to who the primary character was and some of that collective excitement waned. Admittedly, I was on the fence and leaning toward “no” , but when the release date came about, I thought “Let’s go.”

This book isn’t a sympathetic eye towards Snow or even an immersive display of his subsequent transformation into the man we see in the Hunger Games trilogy. It would’ve needed much more nuance and character development to pull that off. When I think of examples of strong villains that stand out in any media (books, movies, TV, even music), there are three elements that they often have common:

1. They’re often strongly asserted with their own moral code or thought process.
2. Have a foil that pushes them into corners that challenge that moral code and puts them in real peril, which they have to work with or against.
3. Give readers a sense of intrigue or edge that makes them invested in what the character does next.

This can be true with anti-heroes as well as full on villains who are just plain evil. It’s not easy to write in the eyes of a villain, and it’s true that a good villain is the hero of his own story.

When we start following him, Coriolanus Snow is a teenage boy tasked with being a mentor during the 10th Hunger Games. He’s coming from a background of hardships that we see in passing, but never completely feel for as the book attempts to bring his vested interests and intents to light. Part of it is Snow’s own focus on anything relating to his self-interests. Despite his hardships, he’s still very entitled and wrapped in his desperation to keep his privileged lifestyle.

When his assignment falls to District 12 and to a young woman named Lucy Gray – he sees her as an opportunity.

That’s right – an opportunity. Note that I don’t say love interest. Note I don’t say this is a romance; matter in point, I VERY deliberately do not tag this book as a romance whatsoever, because it’s 100% not. I’ll explain more on that in a bit.

We watch, through a third person lens, the unfolding of the 10th Hunger Games, with Snow having an eye on the prize (a scholarship to further his studies and potential to regain his fallen social status) and just as much of close eye on Lucy’s progress. As he sees it, if she fails, it’s his failure. When she triumphs, it’s his victory. A vicarious relationship, if you will. While it’s true that Snow does develop what he sees/thinks are romantic feelings and levels of attraction to Lucy, he only sees her as a means to an end, a possession of his needing where he overwrites what her actual feelings are with his own assumptions. At first these mutual, romantic-leaning feelings between Coriolanus and Lucy appear to align, until events occur where they completely diverge as the book marches toward the conclusion.

This is just as creepy as you would assume it would be (and it’s intentional). Of course, Lucy – as well as the surrounding people in Snow’s life – don’t see this. The reader sees the ruminations in Coriolanus’s head and the outward mask that he puts on to maintain control – by any means necessary. At this point you’re probably looking at this review with your jaw dropped and saying “Holy crap, this sounds fascinating and lemme pick up this book if it’s this twisted and full of drama.”

To which I would say “Nooooope. You don’t want this, you don’t want this at all.”

As good as this may sound from a dramatic standpoint, Collins does not carry this book with the level of intrigue to make the reader care about Snow’s plight or even for the characters around him, to a certain extent. It’s due to a few things. The plot presentation leans more towards the mundane and Snow’s internal perspective is so self-invested that he either keeps his relationships with other characters at arms length or seeks to actively manipulate them. There’s literally no character intimacy in this book, save for Snow, and we’re in his head too much. The surrounding characters have some levels of intrigue, but we never get to see them develop beyond their relationship to Snow or to the events he witnesses, like the Hunger Games.

I’m probably in the minority of people who think this book would’ve been better served written from the perspective of Lucy. She’s more in the middle of the book’s rolling action with going through the Hunger Games. It would have also given more perspective as to the role that Snow plays in her relationship with her and her connection to the other characters. I get that she sees Snow as a mentor, as her protector given how he helps her through the more dangerous moments. There would’ve been more opportunities for character intimacy and that sense of urgency that we see in the original trilogy. I’m wondering if the choice to use Snow’s perspective might’ve been because Lucy would’ve felt too much like a rehash of Katniss’s journey. I don’t think that would’ve been the case at all, but I think she would’ve been a better choice than Snow because there was not as much carrying his POV compared to hers. For what little time that we spend with her in this story, I did like some of the scenes where she was more the focus – such as her performances and the scenes where she was around her loved ones and friends.

There were some interesting details aside from the characters that are given weight in “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes”, like the events of the 10th Hunger Games in itself, the shaping of policies that would influence future games, how Snow ended up coming to prominence in the Capitol, for example. Those not only led to more questions that were never answered through the text, but I would argue those details – however interesting they may have been – were not worth wading through 600 pages. Or in my case, almost 17 hours worth of listening on audio. Santino Fontana does a good job narrating the text, but even he can’t save this from being a slog to get through.

Overall, I don’t want to say that this was not worth the read, but so much works against it that I find it hard to recommend at all. Lacking characterization, unappealing construction of a villain (save for maybe the last 15% where things got real and Snow started going full sinister in one particular scene), worldbuilding that was only half immersive, and only a few moments that shined through. It would be best to skip this one unless you find that you can tolerate Snow’s viewpoint for some of the better aspects – those are far and few between.

Overall score: 2/5 stars.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

The post The Art Of Gary Choo appeared first on Halcyon Realms – Art Book Reviews – Anime, Manga, Film, Photography.

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