Book Review: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up.  (Swearing, violence, mild sexuality.)

Be it known that I read an advanced copy of this book and some details may change before publication in late September.

(Sorry for the overly long review, folks, but this book took up a LOT of real estate in my brain this weekend.)

Wow. This book came out of nowhere to knock me down. Captive children under oppressive rule, world-dominating Artificial Intelligence, and post-ecological meltdown politics usually tire me out but… damn. The Scorpion Rules gives me hope that sharp tongued AI and barely-sustainable futures can feel new. And heartfelt. And bloody devastating.

Four hundred years after the ice caps melted and the fresh water became scarce, the newly shaped countries have pretty much stopped fighting. There was lots of war in the beginning: fighting for space and fighting for fertile ground. But then the UN turned control over to an Artificial Intelligence known as Talis. Talis stopped the War Storms. Talis keeps relative peace across the globe. He started by blowing up cities every time a country declared war. Want to start a war or accept a declaration, even in defense of your own border? There goes Fresno. (“Because no one’s gonna miss that” – did I mention that Talis was a snide S.O.B.?)

But blowing up cities wasn’t a good long-term solution. So, as it says in the Holy Utterances of Talis, Book One, Chapter One: being a meditation on the creation of the Preceptures and the mandate of the Children of Peace :

“Make it personal.”

Greta is a Child of Peace. She is also the Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy. She lives at a Precepture somewhere in what was once Canada. At the Precepture, hostage children live almost monkish lives, farming and receiving a rigorous education. They learn about the ancient Stoics and sustainable development. They learn not to repeat the mistakes of history. It’s one of many similar Preceptures scattered around the ravaged globe, where a child of each and every global leader lives as a hostage. This is how Talis made war personal: anyone who wants to rule must have children, so that in case of war, that child’s life will be forfeit. But if they live to be eighteen, they become rulers and must soon send their own children to be held as insurance.

The Scorpion Rules begins with one of Talis’s messengers – a Swan Rider – coming to execute a Child of Peace: a friend of Greta’s. It’s an emotionally jarring way to dip one’s toes into a story, and sparked a slow burn of conflicted horror in me as I read on. Greta and her friends know why they’re hostages, and they know that this system is the only successful way to keep violence minimum out in the struggling world. The Abbot who teaches them – another AI – is at the same time kindly and pitiless. This is the trouble with artificial intelligence, trying to save the human race through logic: logic understands fear and love (that’s how the whole hostage thing works) but it doesn’t show any mercy.

The war that kills Greta’s friend sees the creation of a new state called the Cumberland Alliance, so the ruthless Cumberland general’s grandson joins them as a hostage. Elián was not brought up to be a royal captive and he doesn’t believe in facing one’s fate with dignity and grace. He struggles against Talis’s system, the Abbot’s authority, and the beliefs which Children of Peace take so seriously to heart. He jokes that he’s Spartacus and refuses to give up or stop smiling, even when robotic proctors electrocute him so badly he falls to the ground.

It was easy to think, I, too, would be brave and defiant like Elián in this situation. But would I really? One of the best things about The Scorpion Rules is the powerful moral ambivalence. When Elián acts out, they all get punished. But his stubbornness opens Greta’s eyes to the hideousness of their situation, and once she starts to see how wrong things are, she can’t return to being the stoic princess, prepared and willing to die with dignity whenever a Swan Rider comes calling her name.

Too bad Elián’s grandmother is likely to declare war on the Pan Polar alliance at any time, desperate for the water to be found in the Great Lakes. Knowing that they’re likely to be executed together, there’s shouldn’t be much stopping Greta and Elián from taking a stand against their captivity. But there’s no escape from all these moral quandaries: without the hostages, can there be peace? Will these children’s families really sacrifice them in order to fight? How can the Abbot be their torturer and their nurturer at the same time? Are they willing to endanger their friends for a chance of freedom?

It’s the sort of plot that tears you into pieces, because there are no right answers. Erin Bow writes about a future that could stem from our very messy present, and she doesn’t see an easy way out. The seven teenagers who make up Greta’s cohort come from all over the world, and have varying opinions about their captivity. Thandi is harsh with her friends sometimes, though Greta eventually learns what happened to make her so guarded. Gregor is easily frightened, nerdy, and deadpan in his sense of humor. Da-Xia, Greta’s room-mate and best friend, is small and beautiful but carries the powerful bearing of the goddess-queen she will someday become. Greta was always so composed and smart, until Elián’s words got under her skin. I grew intensely attached to each of these kids as they argued, and worked together, and comforted one another, always watched by the panopticon, always steeling themselves for tragedy.

So when violence comes right to the Precepture’s doors, I was all sorts of nervous about how things might turn out. Halfway through The Scorpion Rules, the psychological turbulence and sci-fi philosophy became suddenly action-packed. I’ve already summarized too much, so I’ll just say: the no-real-good-guys trend continues like woah.

There’s torture. There’s disguise. There’s a funny scene with goat pheromones. There’s a more nuanced romance than I originally expected. There’s an awful lot of blood. Talis himself gets a speaking role that’s a little more intimate than The Utterances, and even though he’s definitely a Heartless Robot Dictator I must admit that he became one of my favorite characters. Don’t get too attached to anyone in this book, though, because no one is safe. I was too wrapped up in furiously turning the pages to wipe away my tears, but my face was definitely damp at one point.

Maybe The Scorpion Rules could have been a little shorter, as it is a long book despite the short span of time in which the action happens. I enjoyed the pastoral gardening scenes and the goat cheese making because these details helped to conjure the monkish serenity of their prison, but I would have been just as happy without them. Aside from a few dips in the pacing, Erin Bow really delivered with this book. Complex characters, a many-layered plot, and philosophy that makes your heart hurt all come together to tell a story that leaves you reeling.

I’m not sure if there’s a sequel expected for The Scorpion Rules. I would definitely read more on the subject – even if just to read more of Talis’s deliciously flippant Holy Utterances – but the ending was also oddly satisfying. Not satisfying like everything’s going to be fine. Because there’s no easy way out of the dire circumstances human kind has to face, here. But satisfying as in everyone has to do what they think is best, and god do I hope they’ve made the right decisions.

And I hope, too, that our future never quite comes to this.

Book Review: The Revelation of Louisa May by Michaela MacColl

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 11 and up (murder and strife but not much gore or sex.)

The Alcott home is weathering some rough times. There’s not enough money to support a family of four girls, so their “Marmee” must go away to work while her husband fiddles with his philosophical writing. Teenaged Louisa has to take charge of things in her mother’s absence, but she would rather be running full-pelt amongst the trees in Concord, talking with Henry David Thoreau, or writing her own stories. A fugitive slave arrives at the house of the passionate abolitionist family, so suddenly Louisa has another mouth to feed and too many secrets to keep. Secrets get mighty dangerous when a ruthless slave-catcher comes to town, looking to make life difficult for those involved in the underground railroad. Keeping her household together while protecting their hidden friend is difficult enough, so how can Louisa spare the energy to wrestle with her feelings for a visiting young man who has changed a lot since his absence? And how on earth will she have time to solve a murder in the midst of so many exhausting demands?

The Revelation of Louisa May is a “novel of intrigue and romance” starring Louisa May Alcott. Good old Louisa May, who wrote Little Women, lived in the town where I sell books, and put so many of my own feelings and failings into words.

“A quick temper, sharp tongue, and restless spirit were always getting her into scrapes, and her life was a series of ups and downs, which were both comic and pathetic.” (from Little Women. I feel ya’, Jo March, like so many angry girls who write.)

But I also adore Louisa’s status as Kick-Ass Single Lady.

“I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”

Not only did Louisa never marry –though Jo eventually does in Good Wives she wrote encouraging other women to find contentment in single life. So I was puzzled to see the word “romance” on the cover of a book starring Louisa May Alcott. That word, I thought, would better apply to one of the “blood and thunder” stories she used to publish herself.

Fear not! Though there is a charming (and surprising) romantic entanglement in The Revelation Of Louisa May, nothing enormous happens that would change Ms. Alcott’s future as a self-supporting and entirely majestic lady of her own free will. So just put those worries straight out of your mind, ye acolytes of Alcott. Blood, thunder, and emotional moonlit chats make this story entertaining, but MacColl is enough of a historian to keep all the important details in line with what life was really like for the literary folks of Concord in the 1840s. Just with a little more murder, and some writerly speculation, thrown in.

In fact, the elements of intrigue and romance in this book felt more like sidelines to the rich portrayal of Concord Massachusetts in the age of the Transcendentalist philosophers. The plot sticks to the theme of MacColl’s previous novels about young women writers of the past, one about Emily Dickinson and one about the Bronte sisters, which places the literary heroines amidst SHOCKING MURDER and POSSIBLE HEARTBREAK and NECESSARY EAVESDROPPING. What fun! But historical fiction is tricky; an author needs to fit a solid fictional plot into the timeline of real peoples’ lives. When a novel is so focused on a single biographical subject, as this one is, things get even harder.

By making all the events surrounding this fictional mystery set up and resolve themselves in a fairly short period of time, Michaela MacColl is able to fit so many excellent details about her characters’ lives into the framework of an old fashioned who-the-actual-hell-has-done-it mystery. It’s not every story that has Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and even Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife as suspects, though. The careful interweaving of rumors and facts about these people into the story made me feel like I had fallen right into the past to see and hear them with my own eyes. (It may have helped that I was sitting on a bench on Walden Street as I read, but the descriptions and dialogue were vivid enough that I think they’d bring those famous fellows to life even if you’re not surrounded by their likenesses at all times.)

I wondered: how will Michaela MacColl give Louisa a mystery to solve and a romance to navigate when we already know so much about the Alcotts’ daily lives? (I know we might be a little overly obsessed with their every word and friendship in Concord, but lots of readers elsewhere admire the author just as much as her work.) Happily, there was a one document summer in which Marmee had to go away to work in New Hampshire, leaving teenaged Louisa to run the household basically on her own. I got to hear MacColl read from and talk about the book over this weekend, and she aptly pointed out that the first thing to do in a mystery for young readers is to “get rid of the parents,” so that unsupervised adventures might be possible. Abba (“Marmee”) would have been all too aware of any snooping and dashing about on her daughter’s part, but in her absence Louisa’s character is free to discover dead bodies and break into hotel rooms.

“What about Bronson Alcott??” I hear you philosophers cry. Well, he wasn’t exactly the most aware of parents. In fact, he was a pretty dreadful husband and father all around. Hugely influential in educational reforms, no doubt, and reportedly captivating when speaking to a room, but not a top notch dad. I think that Michaela MacColl did a respectable job of balancing Louisa’s admiration of her father’s ideals against her frustration at his inability to put the family’s security at a higher priority than his impractical notions. We can see that he’s not a lazy man; he chops wood and repairs their home and gardens for their vegetarian food. He just refuses to work for money, which might sound high-minded and impressive but actually made the Alcotts’ lives awfully difficult.

Much of the story’s tension actually builds around Louisa and Marmee’s anxiety about how to keep the family afloat. Most of Louisa May Alcott’s writing, including Little Women, was written with the rather mercenary goal to get paid ASAP. And I salute her for it, because she was so generous with her funds and made sure her family never suffered once she could afford to take care of them all. The moral bent of Little Women is absent in The Revelation of Louisa May, and we get to hang out with a heroine who knows what must be done and spends a good amount of introspective thought on the difference between ideals and necessity. I love Jo March intensely, but it’s nice to see Louisa as her own person sometimes, too.

Though there’s death and deception in this mystery story, it’s not wildly frightening or inappropriate. Even the romantic stuff is unusually clean for YA literature. I’d recommend The Revelation of Louisa May to readers 11 and up. If you’ve read and enjoyed Little Women, and understand about the underground railroad, there’s nothing here you can’t handle. Some background knowledge on what Emerson and Thoreau were thinking about will make their characters all the more interesting, but it’s not entirely necessary. The author’s note at the back of the book is incredibly helpful, and really rather fascinating. It was nice to see how an author of historical fiction chooses what to keep, what to change, and where truth is truly more compelling than fiction.

Each chapter begins with a little quote from Little Women that will have some connection to the events that follow. I liked this addition, and shall close my review with one of my favorites. I think it sums up the attitude of the book quite nicely:

” ‘I don’t think secrets agree with me, I feel rumpled up in my mind since you told me that,’ sad Jo rather ungratefully.”

Go pick up The Revelation of Louisa May if you’re into the Alcotts, like historical mysteries that aren’t too gory, or if you’ve ever wondered what those wacky Transcendentalists were like when they weren’t expounding on the glories of the woods. I liked this book and will probably read more of MacColl’s work, especially since she keeps choosing such complex and admirable young writers to feature as characters.