Hundreds of years in the future, Earth is run by an artificial intelligence. Originally human, turned into an AI in a quest for immortality, Talis took advantage of access given to him by people at the UN and forced the people of Earth to stop fighting wars. First, he blew up cities to get their attention. Then he took the children of all the leaders – the Children of Peace – to hold hostage against their good behavior. If there is war, the children of the leaders die.
Greta, the narrator of Erin Bow’s book The Scorpion Rules, is one of those children. Canada is now the Pan Polar Confederacy, and she is the daughter of their Queen. If the Children make it to the age of 18, they are sent home and new hostages are taken. If their countries go to war, the Children disappear to some unspeakable end.
We see Greta and the other Children her age studying in their classroom and doing chores on the farm. The characters are not particularly well drawn or memorable. Greta takes great pride in maintaining calm and control. The new boy, Elian, does not. He takes pride in defiance and anger, no matter how he is punished. There is much punishment in this book, and torture. The torture is not graphic but it is extremely evocative, and I found it hard to read.
For the most part, the narrative engaged me. Despite my intense dislike of torture scenes, I did feel compelled to keep reading. I often enjoyed the author’s way with words, like in this passage: “Elian reached up and took one of my wrists, stopping the motion, looking me up and down. I’m sure he was trying for as a man looks at a woman, but it came off rather more as an engineer looks at a bridge pylon.” (p. 63 of the advance reader copy). At other times, the language was a bit overwrought ("I closed my fingers around the gun, and rose to my feet like the Lady of the Lake." (p. 173))
The ending of The Scorpion Rules surprised me, and the plot took a few turns I did not expect. There is a love triangle of sorts. Granted, it is an unusual triangle – a girl with feelings for a boy and a girl – but still, can’t we be done with love triangles? That aspect of the plot was so, so tired. Greta also develops strong feelings of some sort for Elian almost immediately – not quite insta-love, but insta-something.
Some cultural references fell flat, like a bad football joke and mentions of the Road Runner. In his Utterances, Talis actually says, “Resistance is futile.” (p. 26). Also, some scenes were a little too reminiscent of The Hunger Games series. For example, Greta is to be tortured, with coverage sent to her mother by video. The producer, Burr, paces about checking camera angles and noting things on a clipboard. He wants the other Children nearby for reaction shots. This scene reminded me very strongly of The Hunger Games (as did the repeated use of the words “Tick Tock Clock Drop”). But I guess it is hard to write a dystopian teen novel and not be compared to The Hunger Games.
The Scorpion Rules is a first book in a series. It does not stand alone. This is a good thing if you really enjoy it and want more. The ending really left a lot of room for exploration in the next book. I would recommend The Scorpion Rules for readers of young adult literature who aren’t yet tired of dystopian works and also for questioning teens, as Greta is also questioning.
I read an advance reader copy of The Scorpion Rules. It is scheduled to be published on September 22 and will be available in the Young Adult section of the Galesburg Public Library.