This is a prequel to the Hunger Games trilogy, taking place ten years after the end of the initial war, in the year of the 10th hunger games. Coriolanus Snow – President Snow from the original series – is the main character, a teenager in school who is fighting for his personal and family dignity in a time of chaos and poverty. He’s chosen as one of the first 24 hunger games mentors, paired with the female tribute from District 12, who turns out to be a spunky singer named Lucy Gray with an affinity for snakes. Snow is determined to do well as a mentor in the games, to help his family, and increasingly to help Lucy Gray survive her time in the arena.
It’s been ages since I read the original Hunger Games trilogy, but I remember it quite well. The moment I heard this was coming out, I knew I had to read it. Snow’s character development – from naive adolescence to the road toward the ruthless dictator he becomes in Katniss’ time – is an interesting study in circumstances, adult influences, and psychology warped by war and trauma. In the Hunger Games, Snow is seen as a puppet-master, with the tributes as his playthings, but in this book, he himself is the puppet. Collins always does a masterful job with psyche, and I liked how she played with some particular philosophies on human nature. What happens to humans when stripped of order, law, and control? Does hardship and fear bring out the best in us, or the beast? When we are forced to kill, even for survival, how does that change us, and can we ever come back from it?
In a way, you end up feeling sorry for Snow, despite no doubt detesting him in the first three books. But you can also stop and look at his individual choices along the way, and wonder how much of his chosen path was due to forces outside his control, and how much was free will. How much responsibility can he claim, and how much is he willing to? Could and would he have been a different person if he hadn’t been puppet-led into specific situations? This is particularly noteworthy when contrasted with another character, Sejanus, who is in many ways Snow’s opposite while thrust along the same path. Same path, different choices, vastly different outcomes. The way I see it, Snow floats his way through life, seizing chances when available, while Sejanus makes strong decisions, whether right or wrong. In the end, maybe being a puppet didn’t matter, and this is what Snow was going to become no matter what, given the opportunity. Was he born to become a cruel and twisted dictator, or can that blame lay at another’s feet?
Collins doesn’t provide the answers. She simply lays out the story, piece by piece, while you watch what Snow becomes, already knowing the outcome (if you’ve read the original trilogy, at least). Honestly, the ending bothered me at first. There’s so much ambiguity, and some choices/changes that Snow makes that seem very sudden and out of the blue. After a lot of thought, though, I can see why she wrote them this way. I’d been waiting for something to happen to Snow. For betrayal, or loss, or severe grief – something that breaks him. By foregoing this, Collins presents the idea that he wasn’t broken by a single event. You can argue that he was still broken, or that he wasn’t. That’s left open to discussion. But you can’t romanticize his “going bad” with a broken heart, or a lost loved one, or a heartrending choice, or any number of things that other books have bestowed on evil folks to justify their descent into evil. It’s probably not a decision that many readers will like, the same way many disliked the third book of the original series. I think it’s a fascinating look into the realities of cruelty, though, without simplifying or romanticizing trauma, just like Collins was unwilling to simplify or romanticize war in Mockingjay.