THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS AND SNAKES
By Suzanne Collins
Scholastic Press/Hardcover/520 pages/$47.94/Available here
Ten years after wrapping up her bestselling trilogy, The Hunger Games (2008 to 2010), American author Suzanne Collins returns to the dystopian world of Panem, but with an unlikely protagonist - the villain of the original series, Coriolanus Snow.
In the trilogy, Snow is the tyrannical ruler of Panem, presiding over the brutal Hunger Games, in which children from the oppressed Districts are sent as tributes to the Capitol to fight to the death as part of a reality television show.
In this prequel, Collins takes readers back to the 10th Games, in which an 18-year-old Coriolanus is one of the mentors picked to guide the tributes through the competition.
Coriolanus is a teenage Machiavelli in dire straits, the scion of a wealthy house orphaned in the cataclysmic war between the Capitol and the Districts.
Now he and his cousin Tigris struggle to make ends meet while keeping up elite appearances. In the opening scene, they try to salvage an old shirt so that he will appear fashionable to his classmates, even as they live off boiled cabbage and fret about having their penthouse repossessed.
Mentorship is to Coriolanus just another project for his portfolio, with which he hopes to secure a university scholarship and his family's future. That is, until he is assigned District 12's Lucy Gray Baird, an eccentric songstress more gifted with a guitar than a weapon.
Coriolanus despairs of her at first, but as they form a connection and he finds in her a kindred spirit of ruthless charm, they begin to think she could actually win.
What is fascinating here is the behind-the-scenes look at the Games at an early stage of their evolution, when they first shift from joyless punishment into prime-time entertainment, as the gamemakers step up audience involvement and cope with technical fumbles.
The action in the arena is gripping enough, if not as inventive as in the original. This time, Collins is more invested in political philosophy and the result is more cerebral than propulsive, especially in the third section.
The book takes epigraphs from Enlightenment classics such as Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan and John Locke's Second Treatise Of Government, and concepts of power, spectacle and complicity underpin the plot. The original trilogy demonstrated lots of ways to kill children; now Collins asks, why do we keep doing it?
Unlike The Hunger Games' heroine Katniss Everdeen, Coriolanus will win no hearts. Still, he is oddly compelling as the unsympathetic protagonist - already calculating and manipulative, yet still possessing a capacity for love utterly absent in his future self.
Lucy Gray, both songbird and snake, is a manic pixie dream girl plucked from a Wordsworth ballad and thrust into a Battle Royale situation. She is a mystery to the end, though a magnetic one.
She happens to be the originator of the song The Hanging Tree, which becomes a clarion call for the revolution against Snow in the trilogy's finale, Mockingjay.
Theirs is a doomed love story, but it is intriguing enough to watch it fail.
If you like this, read: Heartless by Marissa Meyer (Pan Macmillan, 2016, $17.92, available here), which imagines the bloodthirsty Queen of Hearts from Alice In Wonderland as Cath, a young girl in love.