Review: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

the scorpion rules

I’m disappointed that I didn’t enjoy The Scorpion Rules. Several of my favorite authors blurbed it and the premise is amazing and totally ripe for rich stories. I’m also in the awkward position of liking one or two specific elements that interest me enough to read the sequel, except for the fact that I didn’t care for anything else.

Oops.

The premise begins four hundred years earlier, sometime in the future when the environment has collapsed to the point that the entire world is at war each other. So a U.N.-created A.I. named Talis, who was programmed to prevent humanity from dying out, decided upon an unconventional plan of action, in the form of blowing up seven cities. After Talis got the humans’ attention, the following orders were issued: the leaders of every ruling country, nation, etc. have to provide Talis with an offspring child, who will serve as a hostage, or “Child of Peace,” until their eighteenth birthday. If any country declares war on another, the lives of both countries’ hostages are forfeit. In this way, Talis ensures a (mostly) peaceful existence among the nations of the world for the last several centuries.

Greta, the crown princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy (i.e. Canada) has been a Child of Peace since the age of five. She lives with several other hostages in the Precepture, where they’re monitored by the machines and A.I.s who live there and live in fear of Talis calling in their lives as payment. Greta knows the rules and how the system works, and she’s always planned to face her probable death with dignity.

All that changes with the arrival of a new boy named Elián, the son of the war leader of the newly cobbled-together Cumberland Alliance, which is on the brink of war over water rights with the Pan Polar Confederacy—Greta’s country. From the moment he arrives, Elián fights against the Precepture and everything it stands for. And when the unthinkable happens to the Precepture, Greta too will break the rules to save everyone she can—Elián, the Pan Polar Confederacy, the Cumberland Alliance—and maybe, just maybe, herself.

The premise behind The Scorpion Rules is really cool, and if the book had actually delved into, or been about the politics of the different nations, how and why nations go to war knowing what’s at stake, and how the Children of Peace themselves wrestle with a system that demands their lives as forfeit for actions they have no say in, I would likely have been all over it. Instead the story of feels … flat. It stays largely away from politics beyond bare-bones explanations, with the lack of water largely serving as explanation for countries threatening to attack each other. I can’t help but contrast The Scorpion Rules’s approach to world-building with The Company Town. While the latter only doles out world-building on an as-needed basis, each piece further builds on what comes before and adds more depth, texture, and greater understanding. The Scorpion Rules doles out information similarly, but each piece feels like its own separate entity, unconnected to each other, serving to force the story to fit the shape it’s meant to. In other words, the world-building process never felt organic, only constructed to fit the bare-bones of what was necessary and then ignored when not immediately relevant to the action at hand.

This is a problem given just how much one would think world-building would be essential since Greta is being held hostage with seven other kids her age from seven different countries, many of whom are indistinguishable from each other beyond generic character differentiations. (Greta is reserved and proud and keeps her nose in a book, Thandi is loud and argumentative, Xie is proud and sure of herself, etc.) And then since country borders have and are continuing to change drastically, these would also affect these children’s’ backgrounds. (Yes, they’ve been living at the Precepture from a young age, but they still get to go home to see their parents every year! They are theoretically being raised to a rule a country, and that includes learning about its internal and external politics!) Basically, given the entire setup of the premise and the plot is about international politics and warfare, there is very little that is “international” about this book.

The characters felt similarly bare-boned and bland. The crux of the story is meant to be Greta’s choices (or lack thereof) and the changes she undergoes that open her eyes to a new understanding of her position and the world she lives in. One of Greta’s attributes is that she’s had her face buried in her studies for so long that she hasn’t been paying attention to the changes between her and the other children of her cohort, such as developing romantic relationships. But because there’s no subtext and little world-building or characterization, the reader has to take this character trait at face value, with little available evidence to support it.

One of the highlights of The Scorpion Rules is the development of a romantic relationship between Greta and her roommate, Xie. The negative is the entire character of Elián, who has zero ability to understand that he realistically cannot go up against the Precepture, which is guarded and policed by A.I. and located in the middle of nowhere, and so gets punished over and over again to no avail. This is the individual who inspires Greta, give her impetus to open her eyes, and who is possibly maneuvered so that Greta has a (poly?) developing relationship with both Elián and Xie? The first several chapters read like your typical budding hetero YA romance, then Xie and Greta kiss, but Greta remains super emotionally invested in him, and I don’t even know what Erin Bow was actually going for here?

Adding to all my frustration is that the prose is bland, bland, bland, with no subtlety or grace, and the wooden writing adds to the wooden storytelling to make The Scorpion Rules an unenjoyable reading experience.

(There are a couple of exceptions that, if I’m being fair, are quite good. See: the scene with the apple press. “Tick. Tock Clock. Tick. Tock. Drop.”)

So what on earth is compelling me to read the second book given how thoroughly unimpressed I am with most of it?

I unabashedly loved Talis, the supreme overlord of all humanity and the creator of the Children of Peace, and the juxtaposition of said supreme overlord with the irreverent idiosyncratic manner attitude and way of speaking of a twenty-first century teenager, whose words have become sacred literature quoted with the utmost seriousness.

But really the best part is …

HIGHLIGHT FOR SPOILERS

Greta becomes an A.I.

And in doing so, she becomes a whole new entity processing the world. No longer human, still sort of herself, maybe even a monster. The process of becoming an A.I. doesn’t just involve the transferral of memories, but the remembrance and and processing of memories—emotional and intuition versus subroutines and objective observation. Looking for clues, for signs, constructing not just narratives but self out of the different means of mental processing. Choosing not to die but dying anyway, and in doing so transforming into something new.

I loved Greta’s journey, starting with her decision to become an A.I. to save herself, her country, and the people she loves and ending with the mental agony of that transformation, from the princess, heir to the throne, and Child of Peace she was for sixteen years, the identities she had known all her life and had prepared to live up to, including being killed as the result of a declaration of war.

I want to see more of how Greta’s transformation plays out. For that, I want to read Book Two, The Swan Riders (which will be out in September). Except that’s the only part I have any interest in. I have zero interest in whatever the actual plot will be, and I’d rather not read more bland prose that’s technically easy to read but so flat that I can easily skim through it.

Ah well.

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