With her Hunger Games novels, Suzanne Collins harnessed a combination of twisty plots, teen romance, dystopian worldbuilding and subtle intimations of cannibalism to sell more than 100 million books around the world.
The premise was unbeatable: Authoritarian regime forces children to fight to the death on live TV; rebellion ensues. But much of the series' appeal came from the spiky charisma of protagonist Katniss Everdeen, the sharpshooting teenager who wins the games and starts a revolution while choosing between two boys who are as alike in cuteness as they are different in Weltanschauung.
The series has a distinct Roman imperial vibe—far-flung districts sending their harvests to the glorious and corrupted Capitol, feasts complete with vomitoria, gladiatorial contests to the death (but for kids!). The country is called Panem, after the Latin phrase "panem et circenses," or bread and circuses—what the Roman satirist Juvenal identified as the formula for quieting a restive population. (In 1984, George Orwell calls this substance "prolefeed.") The hunger games, of course, are the circenses, the Capitol's way of controlling the proles through the twin mechanisms of entertainment and terror.
Collins' new novel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, is a baggy, meandering prequel to the events of The Hunger Games that tells the story of Katniss' nemesis and Panem's authoritarian ruler, Coriolanus Snow. With his Roman tyrant's name, surgically altered face and breath smelling of blood and roses, Coriolanus appeared as a distant villain throughout most of The Hunger Games series. It's only the last installment that gives him a touch of mystery—in its final pages, sentenced to public execution, he instead dies laughing, choked on his own blood.
So, how did he get there? Why was he laughing? What's with the blood? The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes opens on teenage Coriolanus at home, making a cabbage soup that fills "the kitchen with the smell of poverty." Once prosperous, the Snows have fallen on hard times. Coriolanus has been chosen to mentor one of the tributes for the hunger games, a charming waif named Lucy Gray, after William Wordsworth's ballad. In helping her to victory, he sees a chance at social redemption and a coveted scholarship to the university.