In the Academy, the top school for the Capitol's elite, 24 bright young things compete for a scholarship to the University. The ambitious Coriolanus Snow can't afford to lose this one. His family, one of the oldest in the Capitol, has fallen on hard times since the death of his parents, and with property taxes rising, this is his only chance for an expensive university education.
All he has to do is excel at Dr Gaul's internship, which involves mentoring a participant in this year's Hunger Games - the gladiatorial-esque contest in which two children from each of the 12 districts of Panem fight to the death until there is one victor.
Young Coriolanus is, of course, a familiar character. He grows up to become President Snow, the psychotic, megalomaniac villain of the original Hunger Games series. Here, he's presented as a conscientious, talented student (or maybe just a goody two-shoes) determined to win the university prize at all costs. His task is made more difficult when he is assigned to mentor Lucy Gray Baird, the female tribute from District 12: in other words, a certain loser. With her bright personality and musical talent, however, Lucy Gray strikes a chord with viewers, and Coriolanus begins to see her potential to win - but he is also starting to fall for her.
The first two parts of the novel fly by, detailing the lead-up to, and the progression of, the Tenth Annual Games. Anyone familiar with the original series will remember the ridiculous stream of interviews and TV appearances involved in this - some of Collins' best writing came in her withering satirical takes on TV and the media. Here, however, we are witnessing the games at an early stage, and the spectacle is nowhere near as advanced. Over the course of the internship, the mentors brainstorm for new innovations to keep viewers watching. At one point, their instructor, Dr Gaul, tasks them with finding a way to turn the games into a 'meaningful experience' for viewers (this is a line that you just know Collins, also a writer for TV, relished). Coriolanus's stroke of genius is to introduce betting and sponsorship, in effect turning the games into something more interactive.
Collins' decision to focus the prequel on Snow met with criticism as soon as it was announced. Many felt that it was a Joker-esque dive into Snow's backstory that could only encourage us to feel misplaced sympathy for the man he became. Actually, Collins handles this quite well.
Though he is established as a more sympathetic character due to his grief for his mother and his poverty, we're invited to be more critical as the novel progresses. He constantly convinces himself out of doing the right thing, sometimes over the course of a single paragraph. He complains to his tribute, Lucy Gray, about a demerit in school which might affect his chances at the scholarship, while she sits in the rat-infested cage at the zoo awaiting the start of the games. He's clearly not meant to be a character we root for, or even particularly empathise with.
The last third of the book, dealing with the aftermath of the games, unfortunately does not live up to the promise of what came before. Moving away from the Capitol setting is a shame, because the portrait of the post-war city is one of the book's strongest elements. Far from being the epitome of decadence that we saw in the original series, the Capitol here is a bombed-out husk that still hasn't recovered from the war a decade earlier. Most importantly, however, the central romance didn't work, and in order for the ending to pack a punch, we needed to feel more invested in it.
Perhaps this was because Lucy Gray, as a character, feels two-dimensional, seen only through Snow's eyes. Collins might have been better off ditching the romance subplot, and focusing instead on Snow's more interesting friendship with Sejanus Plinth, the new-money boy whose family made their fortune at the same time as the Snows lost theirs.
Prequels are difficult to get right, and for all the valid criticisms - the length, the romance, the endless musical numbers - Collins pulls off a clever trick in this novel. You can't help comparing the stripped-back early games, which seem nothing more than brute force and barbarism, with the slick presentation of the games in the original series. Is it better or worse to miss the grotesque spectacle of the later games, the lengthy TV interviews and outrageous fashion statements? Which is more palatable, less horrific? Collins is likely to have more time to explore this. Something about the partially unresolved ending makes me think that we haven't seen the last of Coriolanus and friends…