Erin Bow writes books for me.
Now, I don't mean that literally, she doesn't even know me, but so rarely do you find an author who not only writes well, but writes to your predilections. Someone who avoids popular cliches you find tiresome, who ruminates on themes that sometimes are overlooked, and digs up ideas that set your brain's gears spinning off into action. She is the kind of author who writes off-beat or strange meshes of genres that hit all my sweet spots. I loved her Plain Kate and felt my heart crushed at Sorrow's Knot, so I was willing to read whatever story she came up with. Even if it involved a lot of animal husbandry (which, in fact, this one does).
The Scorpion Rules has one of those fantastical dystopian genre premises that give a lot of preconceived notions of how it should go. There are child sacrifices and evil overlords, idealistic youths and conflicts between love and destiny. But each of these premises are given small turns, twists, or outright refutations. And none of this is done as a metatextual rebuttal to YA juggernauts like The Hunger Games, but a different concept that spins out into its own way.
The plot seems like a regular dystopian setup: the world's resources have been squandered, and that leads to rebellions and wars. The answer to stopping the wars have been a return to the old system of hostage taking, where each ruler had to give up their heir as a sacrifice to keep them from going to war needlessly. Otherwise, the ruler would be essentially executing their child as the first blood. And, aside from some semantic quibbles I would have with this set up, it's a lot more plausible than some of the other plots I've read. Or, at least the snarky AI that's behind all the oppressive rules makes it easier to accept.
It also runs counter-current to most YA narratives. Where survival and freedom are the most coveted prizes, what would it mean to know your life in captivity may be the thing keeping your countrymen from slaughter? Also, where most YA show how a society has obviously turned to the worst, and most rebellions lead to the society approaching something closer our status quo, what about a necessary evil that actually does prevent war?
Greta is an interesting protagonist. I know other people have said she is dull and passive, but I think the best description for her is stoic. This is a character who was taken at five years old to be a hostage, ruled over by an omnipresent AI that has blown up cities for any perceived infraction, and told that her life is forfeit if her country goes to war: even if it is only in defense of itself. That circumstance would create a learned helplessness in anyone. So, naturally, Greta accepts the rules she cannot change and seeks to bear them with dignity. Including one line where she refuses to "gawp" and I award points to any story with the accurate usage of gawp in it. In fact, one of the more sadistic characters marvels at how she "can just take it" and accept this abuse, as both a condemnation and praise of her. And that complicated nature is why I find her compelling.
Her dialogue is very precise, and there is an overwhelming sense of resignation to much of it. The first chapters discuss her growing awareness that one of Talis's executioners might be coming for her, and her small permissible act of kindness to hold the hand of the boy who was taken instead. Reading her narration is often an exercise in what she doesn't say, not like the unreliable narrators that make readers guess between truth and lies, but readers who sift through semantics and see how Greta shies away from reporting some of the more horrendous (or in the case of goat mating: awkwardly graphic) scenarios and holds back unpleasantness even from herself.
Elián is the opposite of Greta, a boy who was never expected to rule and thus reacts to becoming a Child of Peace hostage the way anyone else would: immediate and futile rebellion. I like that he is the counterpoint to her: brash where she is circumspect, passionate where she is measured. At one point he says she sounds just like a textbook, but she uses that to spin off a veiled warning at his plans of escape, subtle enough for their robot overlords to miss in its doublespeak. Elián is the chaotic good to her lawful, and I find it easy to believe that they would change each other profoundly in their time together.
I also love that they both love each other, but it is not the romantic love so often touted in YA. I love that Greta doesn't bend the rules because of her all-consuming passion for him, but because she promised she wouldn't let him die. I love that she loves him and loves someone else at the same time [spoiler]and I love that the someone else is also a girl that compliments her diplomatically careful persona[/spoiler]. I also really love how these two different interests are not presented in a way that has competing sides of a love triangle, but different facets that are both responsible for Greta's growth throughout the novel.
As for the plot itself, I really don't want to spoil what happens. Only to say that Bow does not attempt to follow formula, and people who expect a lot of the similar earmarks of dystopian fiction, such as passionate ideals and breathless pacing, will be very disappointed to read a story where much of the rebellion comes from silent acquiescence and withholding their true feelings about circumstances.The finale is not a climax between two major forces, but something far more philosophical [spoiler] namely: a transhumanism manifesto as Greta decides to bargain her life to join Talis as an AI, the last 50 pages dealing with how she has retained some parts of her humanity and also how much she has lost. [/spoiler] The pace of the book is slow and methodical, like a diplomatic negotiation that peels back layers to get to the truth of it.
And that's precisely why I love it.