I just finished re-reading this trilogy for the first time in like five years, for the first time post-Trump presidency, for the first time since Covid, for the first time in my thirties. And some of the themes hit harder now.
Like the struggle to choose between fighting to change the status quo or fleeing/hiding for your own safety and sanity.
Like how there’s so much gray area in the good vs. evil debate, when each side truly believes they’re fighting for something noble.
Like how it’s easy to stop seeing individuals and merely see a “side” you’re against.
Like how people on both sides of a war (and the tactics and justifications they use) are far more similar than they think.
This series holds up so, so well, especially compared to a lot of other dystopian YA books that came out around the same time. It might even pack more punch in 2021 than it did when it came out in 2008—which is kind of scary. Dystopia, like satire, is getting more and more indistinguishable from reality.
The gist: Prequel to the Hunger Games series focusing on President Snow’s formative years and the nascent days of the Hunger Games competition.
The background:The Hunger Games trilogy are some of my favorite books to read again and again—I love Suzanne Collins’s writing, worldbuilding, and characters. So I don’t know why I let this prequel sit on my shelf for months before finally diving in. I think it had to do with the mixed reviews I’d heard, and I was postponing being disappointed. I shouldn’t have been worried; reviews are nothing compared to your actual reading experience, and this was a great one.
The tea: I’m just going to come out and say I loved this book.
As a big Hunger Games fan, I thought this was a satisfying tale that did three things very well: It expanded on the history of Panem and the Games, it gave background and nuance to the eventually villainous Coriolanus Snow, and it made thought-provoking connections to the original trilogy.
The only complaint I could have about this book is the lack of action until about halfway through, and maybe some uneven pacing, but I don’t really care that it’s not action-packed.
It reads as more of a character study on Snow, and Collins spends a lot of time showing how he thinks, how he calibrates and adapts, how he works to keep up appearances, how he meticulously measures the consequences of his words and actions, the risk and the reward. We get to see that he’s naturally calculating and ambitious, but he was raised in the Capitol among the calculating, ambitious, and even ruthless. So, was he always destined to become an evil tyrant, or did the Capitol create a monster? It’s a classic nature versus nurture question, and it’s kind of fun to think about.
Beyond painting a clear picture of a young Snow, the book gives more info on the war that started the Hunger Games tradition and hints at how the Games grew from a bleak event that nobody even in the Capitol wanted to watch (the novel is set during the 10th Annual Hunger Games) to the sparkly, reality show phenomenon it became by Katniss’s time. Plus, it elaborates on a few other things from the trilogy that I won’t spoil here.
While I would read anything Collins wrote set in the HG world, she couldn’t have picked a better character to explore. It’s a twist on the typical villain origin story, giving the bad guy a dose of humanity, but ultimately showing that some villains might be just that.
The wrap-up: I’d suggest those who haven’t read The Hunger Games start with the trilogy first, but The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a must-read for HG fans. I know some have been disappointed, but I think if you go into it ready to soak up knowledge of the dystopian world rather than be hit with a cliffhanger every other page, you’ll have a good time reading.
In any case, it got me excited enough to read through the trilogy yet again, this time with a new lens—and a prequel that enriches its source material is a success in my book.
The rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐/5
“People aren’t so bad, really,” she said. “It’s what the world does to them.”
A hundred years ago in 2012 when The Hunger Games franchise was at the height of its popularity, SNL came out with this ridiculous sketch that I just remembered existed the other day because I spotted Uncrustables at the grocery store and laughed under my mask at the thought of Sofía Vergara plugging the sandwich sponsor and yelling that she’s “HUNGRY FOR MORE HUNGER GAAAAAMES!!!”
Vergara gives 100% as an overly enthusiastic Capitol reporter getting the scoop from inside the arena as kids drop dead around her, which is probably a fairly accurate representation of how Capitol people would’ve acted watching the Hunger Games at home.
This scrappy fuzzball from The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins belongs to heroine Katniss Everdeen’s sister Prim. He appears in all three novels (and four films) as a comforting companion to Prim and an annoyance to Katniss, with whom he’s not on the friendliest of terms due to her (expositional) attempt to drown him in a bucket—bad Katniss! Eventually, though, she accepts Prim’s attachment to him.
Buttercup is said to be a good mouser and even catches the occasional rat. He’s described in the novels as looking a little worse-for-wear with a mashed-in nose and half of one ear missing—which tracks, considering his rough life in the impoverished District 12. His name comes from Prim insisting that his muddy yellow coat matches the bright buttercup flower.
In fact, the makers of the Hunger Games films tried to pull a fast one by casting a black-and-white cat as Buttercup in the first movie. Collins and fans (rightfully) demanded he be changed to a yellow-haired cat for the rest of the films to stay true to the novels and his namesake.
When the Everdeen family moves into a new, much larger house in Catching Fire, Buttercup and Katniss bond over their shared dislike of their new home. Katniss even starts sharing scraps from her hunting kills with him and deigns to give him the occasional behind-the-ear rub.
At one point in Mockingjay when the resistance is on lockdown in a bunker during a bombing from the Capitol, Buttercup helps ease the tension by entertaining the troops, so to speak, chasing a flashlight beam and giving Katniss an epiphany about how her enemy is taunting her. And making everyone LOL. (Even in wartime, people can still laugh at cat antics. Call it a testament to the human spirit.)
We don’t get to see a ton of Buttercup, since he lives in District 12 (and eventually 13) and our POV character Katniss is usually off fighting for her life somewhere else, but he makes his few appearances count.
Case in point: this passage from Mockingjay, which I’ll let close. Now that I’ve typed it out, I need to go find whoever’s chopping onions around here…
My head snaps around at the hiss, but it takes awhile to believe he’s real. How could he have gotten here? I take in the claw marks from some wild animal, the back paw he holds slightly above the ground, the prominent bones in his face. He’s come on foot, then, all the way from 13. Maybe they kicked him out, or maybe he couldn’t stand it there without her, so he came looking.
“It was a waste of a trip. She’s not here,” I tell him. Buttercup hisses again. “She’s not here. You can hiss all you want. You won’t find Prim.” At her name, he perks up. Raises his flattened ears. Begins to meow hopefully. “Get out!” He dodges the pillow I throw at him. “Go away! There’s nothing left for you here!” I start to shake, furious with him. “She’s never ever coming back here again!” Out of nowhere, the tears begin to pour down my cheeks. I clutch my middle to dull the pain. “She’s dead, you stupid cat. She’s dead.” A new sound, part crying, part singing, comes out of my body, giving new voice to my despair. Buttercup begins to wail as well. No matter what I do, he won’t go. He circles me, just out of reach, as wave after wave of sobs racks my body, until eventually I fall unconscious.
But he must understand. Because hours later, when I come to in my bed, he’s there in the moonlight. Crouched beside me, yellow eyes alert, guarding me from the night.