Monday, September 21, 2015

Review: The Scorpion Rules - Erin Bow

Release Date: September 22, 2015
Source: Netgalley
Published by: Margaret K. McElderry Books

The Scorpion Rules - Erin Bow | Goodreads

A world battered by climate shift and war turns to an ancient method of keeping peace: the exchange of hostages. The Children of Peace - sons and daughters of kings and presidents and generals - are raised together in small, isolated schools called Prefectures. There, they learn history and political theory, and are taught to gracefully accept what may well be their fate: to die if their countries declare war.

Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan-Polar Confederation, is the pride of the North American Prefecture. Learned and disciplined, Greta is proud of her role in keeping the global peace — even though, with her country controlling two-thirds of the world’s most war-worthy resource — water — she has little chance of reaching adulthood alive.

Enter Elián Palnik, the Prefecture’s newest hostage and biggest problem. Greta’s world begins to tilt the moment she sees Elián dragged into the school in chains. The Prefecture’s insidious surveillance, its small punishments and rewards, can make no dent in Elián, who is not interested in dignity and tradition, and doesn’t even accept the right of the UN to keep hostages.

What will happen to Elián and Greta as their two nations inch closer to war?

This book was not what I was expecting. Multiple people have said that YA dystopia is dead; knowing that this book is considered dystopian made me curious. But I sort of don't want to consider this a YA dystopia. On one hand, my immediate thought with regard to YA dystopian novels is: fast-paced, action-packed works like Divergent, Legend, The Maze Runner, and The Hunger Games. The Scorpion Rules is probably closest to The Hunger Games for its premise alone, but even then I wouldn't compare the two because TSR is a lot slower and more focused on the literary implications of its premise (whereas THG can read like a video game sometimes). And when I try to think of other YA dystopian novels, I think of symbolic poetic types likeMatched. The Scorpion Rules is less about poetic literary truths and more about the hard details of a world war-torn over precious resources. On the other hand, this is undoubtedly a dystopian work, and I can't dismiss that for lack of appropriate comparisons. At its core a dystopian novel has some critique of today's society or some innately discussable idea. There is plenty to discuss in The Scorpion Rules: the way Talis rules the world, the metaphor that explains the book's title (put two scorpions in a jar, and one will sting the other, regardless of its own inevitable death), the way the Children of Peace react to various crises, the water wars and the effects of climate change (this is something I really loved getting to see because wars for my generation will undoubtedly be influenced or caused by the rippling effects of climate change). I have seen some people comment that environmental ruin is frequently mentioned in YA dystopian novels - maybe, but not in the way of The Scorpion Rules. Most YA dystopian novels just use environmental ruin or apocalypse as the backdrop (look, I like Divergent the book, but Divergent the movie - what was with that random sunken ship by the wall? And Hunger Games - we never know what led to the Districts forming, etc.). Meanwhile the Scorpion Rules juggles the politics and political intrigue of and the human role in such ruin. To me, it reads unlike anything else I've read.

Then there's also the fact that most YA dystopians are considered YA science fiction as well or sci fi dystopias (I never quite understood why). Divergent, Legend, The Hunger Games - if they do ever have a more science focused lens, it comes much later in the game whereas The Scorpion Rules starts off with the introduction of AIs. The role the AIs play and the way they mingle with humans, and even their history, was quite fascinating to me, and I particularly enjoyed the twists that Erin Bow was able to introduce because of her AIs. So, to recap: for me, The Scorpion Rules was different from other YAs of its type in how it treats its dystopian and science fiction elements.

I was also quite enchanted by the side characters like the Children of Peace. You know how in The Raven Cycle, you have the sense that Maggie Stiefvater really knows her characters and knows what kind of dynamic each character would have with a new character? That's the sort of vibe I get with the Scorpion Rules. Unlike the Raven Cycle, TSR may be plot-focused, but the author shows an incredible level of control with regard to how she has developed her side cast. Some characters may remain off to the side and seem more underdeveloped (plot, not character focused), but there's wonderful diversity and complexity all around: the relationship between Greta and her mom and how each of their interactions is coded with emotional turmoil, Greta's relationship with the Abbott, the romantic relationships. Talis. What happens with regard to Talis makes me very eager and curious to read book 2 of The Prisoners of Peace. The interesting thing, for me, is that though Talis is meant to act as the villain, he has an almost petulant voice and plenty of pent-up anger that, in a sympathetic light, makes him feel realistic and well, fascinating. I started to root for him and felt intrigued despite myself and then I remembered how his actions had caused the deaths of many people. Plus Greta's interactions with Talis were particularly interesting.

I adored the way Erin Bow handled the romance. The synopsis puts you in mind of the new boy romantic trope: "Enter Elián Palnik, the Prefecture’s newest hostage and biggest problem." But this is not the case for The Scorpion Rules, for there is another romantic interest, and that romantic interest became fairly clear from the start (at least for me). And I loved how that romantic interest helped to ground Greta, remind her of her own strength while Elián, as the new boy, challenges Greta to think beyond the principles she's accepted her whole life (e.g. Talis's absolute power, etc.). Both were essential to Greta's character development, and both had wonderfully tension-fraught scenes, and both got to shine in their own right for what they meant and represented to Greta. Plus, I also really enjoyed the fact that Erin Bow didn't try to *label* what Greta had with Elián and her other romantic interest. That lent another level of complexity that I appreciated - I didn't want their interactions to be as simple as "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" because they weren't.

What disappoints me is the way that I've seen others mention Greta. Critique has said that she's dull, flat. I think that's mistaking having a bold, extroverted personality or fighter abilities (e.g. Rose from Vampire Academy) with strength. As much as I love the Rose types, just because a character's inner voice doesn't feature sarcastic humor or brash action doesn't mean they're dull or flat. In fact, this also reminded me of the general debate on what constitutes a "strong female character." Is a Katniss type with bow and arrow going to be better received than a leader whose only weapons are her words and the loyalty she's inspired in her fellow (sometimes helpless, well-educated) hostages? Greta is smart and knowledgeable, and when a plot twist unfolds, she's a character who thinks everything through, so you're with her on her journey, especially as she decides to take action (or forestall it). She's also had an emotionally stunted childhood. Sure, she gets to go home every once in a while, to "reaffirm" the bonds between her and her parents so that she's still an effective hostage, but most of her life is dictated by AI overlords/mentors and her Children of Peace friends, who can be taken from her at any moment and have been in the past, and the knowledge that she too can be killed any day. This results in social awkwardness, a need for logical routine, a love of labor and tending to the garden/animals, and Greta being at once practical and idealistic, hard and incredibly vulnerable. For all that she knows that she can die any day, she's a child, and duh, she's afraid. She has a really interesting character arc in this novel, and some of the emotional situations (e.g. flashback scenes with her mother, her relationship with Elián) immediately caught my attention and sympathy. I found her narrative to be quite compelling, and Greta a wonderful example of how a steadfast, clever, logical mind could be a weapon.

With an innately discussable premise, complex character relationships, and dynamic political intrigue and world-building scope, The Scorpion Rules is an impressive addition to the once teeming shelves of YA dystopia.

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