“Once upon a time, at the end of the world.
Sit down, kiddies. Let me tell you a story.”
(Yes, that first line is actually a combination of the prologue’s subtitle and the first line, but I think it’s a particularly potent combo, yes?). Erin Bow’s psychological science fiction The Scorpion Rules takes place 400 years after artificial intelligence had to step in to stop humans from destroying the world and each other. The world is still ruled by the boss AI, Talis, who set up an elaborate hostage situation to stop humans from acting like complete anuses: the leaders of each nation (or whatever, shit’s gotten all scrambled in the future) has to give up their first born child to join the “Children of Peace.” If a nation goes to war, their royal hostage gets murdered. Greta is the princess heir of Canada (more or less), who has just a year and a half to go before she will be released to live her life without the threat of murder hovering over her head (or at least, no moreso than the usual for royalty). The arrival of a new hostage from a new country that is, roughly, Appalachia signifies Very Bad Things: that her country is about to go to war with his, and that her time might very well be up UNLESS.
I know what you’re thinking: this sounds like some sort of variant on The Hunger Games, and there are definitely elements of what is now the quintessential YA dystopia present, but this book is its own beast. I was INSANELY excited when it came out because Erin Bow’s Sorrow’s Knot was one of my favorite books of 2014. Unfortunately, my expectations were not entirely met. Close! But no cigar.
I will start off by saying that this is a solid book, with better writing, world building, and character development than most YA dystopia fare. My disappointed expectations are based solely on loving Bow’s previous work SO MUCH. The beautiful writing in Sorrow’s Knot that frequently made me pause, go back, and reread sentences over and over again because they were so lovely wasn’t fully present here. There were moments, to be sure, but The Scorpion Rules felt less like a piece of art disguised as combinations of words and more like, well, just a good book. Maybe it’s absurd for me to expect something that is, in fact, a book to be MORE than a book, but those were my expectations! I’m sorry! I’m sorry.
The Scorpion Rules also dragged its heals a bit in the beginning, and I hate to discredit my teen readers by saying this, but I’m not sure that there will be a huge readership willing to hang on until it gets going after roughly 160 pages. At that point, yes, it gets pretty juicy, however much of the “action” is largely psychological in nature. The focus is on inner conflicts, about sacrifice vs. self-preservation, of weighing the greater good against against immediate evil, about how power often involves abandoning your human instinct in the name of poise and self-control, and how soul withering it is to grow up with the promise of that power on your shoulders. Major aha moments don’t come from back flips and guns, but from revelations of psyche. One of my major FUCK YEAH, GRETA moments didn’t come when she committed an act of physical daring, but when she committed an act of gutsy, well-considered diplomatic maneuvering. So if you’re expecting lots of action a la Collins and Roth, this is not your book.
Anyways, the first buck and a half of the book is a lot of world building and character introduction, and so I have a feeling that Bow may lose some less patient readers because of this slow start, but she didn’t lose me. Erin Bow does an exemplary job of building a complex, believable world that has bounced back after an apocalypse (of sorts). The whole “Children of Peace” concept is logical and believable (hell, it’s based on history), FAR more believable than most “dystopian” crap out there. Even if this wasn’t the most beautiful example of what Bow can do with words, she’s still a REALLY good writer, and what she lacked in poetry here she more than made up for with tongue-in-cheek humor. I even read The Scorpion Rules as almost a slight jab at the genre as a whole; the new hostage, for example, who of course is immediately a love interest is so obnoxious that I read him as a caricature. The big bad dictator of the world is a several hundred year old AI whose “utterances” basically read like they were written by a World of Warcraft nerd made an immortal supreme leader by technology, and is also one of the best characters I’ve read all year. All of the tropes are there, but they’re slightly warped to produce something original and damn fun to read.
Bottom line: come for Bow’s as ever solid writing and stay for the effed the hell up torture, sexually excited goats, and abundant zucchini.
(No really: the goats were my favorite part.)
(Wait, no, the goats weren’t quite my favorite. My favorite part was this book being queer as fuck. Thank you so, so, so much, Ms. Bow, for making this book so queer and sexy. I can’t really say more about that without ruining it for readers, but that was DOPE.)
For music, let’s do Kaospilot’s “Robots Took on the Outside of Dogs,” because I really liked the idea that AI can commandeer living bodies.