I loved Erin Bow’s previous books, Plain Kate and Sorrow’s Knot. They also made me cry kind of a lot, so I was expecting The Scorpion Rules to be emotionally damaging. But oh, dear reader, I was still not prepared.
Which is to say, this probably isn’t a book for everyone. The world it depicts is brutal, which is not dwelt on in detail, but perhaps is all the more powerful for that. With the seas rising, the world has torn itself apart over natural resources–until Talis, the AI who ruthlessly brings an end to the endless conflict by making the rulers’ children hostages. If your parent goes to to war with another country, you die. No exceptions.
But there are also terrible things that happen in the present of this book. I really admired this, actually. Sometimes authors will write a threat into their world but then wiggle around it. Bow goes for it every time. If Talis threatens something, it happens. And so the other players in this scene have the same kind of mercilessness; Talis does dreadful things, but so do the humans involved. (I may never be able to drink apple cider again, thanks.)
To the extent that this set-up is a dystopia, it must contain within it the seeds of a utopia. And that, here, is the promise of peace–as long as you follow Talis’s rules. A pax Talisica? (I don’t know Latin; I’m sure this is dreadfully wrong! So sorry!) And so, as the book begins, Greta and her fellow Children have been thoroughly trained into compliance. Trained isn’t quite the right word. Elián would probably use tortured; I think I would call it conditioned. The Children take it as a matter of pride to go to their deaths with dignity, and Greta is the epitome of this philosophy.
Which means that she is not very interested in challenging anything. She hopes for peace until she turns eighteen and is no longer a hostage, even though she knows that her country is teetering on the brink of war. She rebels only in the smallest and most hidden of ways, not even in the semi-accepted ways that the other Children do. It would be easy to see her as passive, but her voice is to clear and strong that I never read her this way. In fact, I don’t read this as a story of transition from weakness to strength. I read it as a story of a changing relationship to the world around you, a changing use of the strength you always had. It’s about the moment when you find a way to act.
But in this world, if you act, bad things happen. And they do. They really do. (If you’ve read The Queen of Attolia, this story is kind of like That One Scene, except for most of a book. I kept having to take breaks from reading it because it was so intense, but by the same token, I always came back.) This is mostly because of Talis, the ancient and powerful AI who runs the world. If he were human, he would certainly be evil. As it is, it’s hard for me to say, exactly. He’s hilariously snarky and unexpectedly heartbreaking. I should not like him, but I do.
Opposing him is Elián, a new member of the Children, one who has not undergone the same conditioning. He fights Talis’s decrees, he rebels against the peace-keeping laws, he won’t give in even after he knows full well that something dreadful will follow. One summary of this story might be: girl is part of a dystopian system; she meets a boy who refuses to follow the rules; everything changes. This misses a lot of the specifics that make this particular story what it is, but there’s also a little truth to it. Greta is continually annoyed with Elián because he won’t simply accept his fate and behave. But she is also changed by him, inevitably, even if the ways she’s changed aren’t always predictable.
If Greta’s relationship with Elián is one part of the story, the other is her relationship with Da-Xia, her roommate. Elián is a catalyst and a friend. Xie is the one Greta trusts, the one who holds firm. Personally, I was rooting for Greta & Xie; I read her as somewhat attracted to Elián and Elián as someone she cares deeply about, but who she’s not in love with. I’m having a hard time talking about the way I read their relationships without huge spoilers, but I will say that I loved the way both are shown as important and valid.
And if there’s an uplifting theme here, it’s that love can save you. I’m running up against spoilers again, and I really want to avoid spoiling everything. But, despite the awful things that happen in this story, somehow this is also true. If you are trapped in an impossible dilemma, you can find a third choice, and if you find your way through it, it will be with the help of those you love and who love you. You may not be able to hold on to it, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Also, hi from Indianapolis (this is funny if you’ve read the book).
Book source: Advanced copy
Book information: 2015, Margaret K McElderry Books; YA science fiction