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.

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Book Review: Talker 25 by Joshua McCune

Star Ratings (out of 5):

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Writing: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age range recommendation: 12 and up

In the not-too-distant future, America has a dragon problem.  No one knows how or why they arrived, but the enormous creatures destroy towns and eat humans.  The medieval fears weren’t myths after all, but instead of knights in metal armor, mankind now faces the threat with special military divisions and dragon-slaying reality TV.

Sporty, sullen Melissa Callahan has always hated the dragons; they killed her mother and present a constant threat to her military town.  When some friends convince her to join them on a prank – breaking into the “rez” and taking photos with the big blue dragon there – she unwittingly sets off a chain of events which will jeopardize her family’s lives and shatter her illusions about the war between man and monster.  Melissa can hear the dragons talking, and it’s hard to see a creature as nothing but scales and teeth when it knows your name and wants to chat.  Soon enough, she finds herself set up, trapped, and caught in a battle between a group of renegade pro-dragon insurgents and the military “D-men.”  Both sides want to exploit her talents as a “talker,” and every choice seems to drag Melissa deeper into moral quandary of deceit, double-dealing, and political turmoil.

This debut YA novel caught my attention for several reasons.  Most importantly, it’s been too long since I read a great new dragon book for teenagers.  I’ve got old favorites from elementary and middle school, and there are obviously some exciting adult fantasy books with plenty of dragon action. But what with the futuristic bent of Young Adult literature these days, my scaly friends have been unjustly ignored.  So when an action-packed, modern dragon story came into my sights, you can bet I sank my claws right into it.

I was also intrigued by the concept of dragons in America, set on a “reservation”, inaccurately thinking that this would be a story which featured Native American protagonists as well as dragons.  It’s old news that fiction for children and teens still needs way more diversity amongst characters and authors. A mythology largely inspired by European folklore transported to a modern American reservation could have been a really excellent blending of worlds, if written well.  Alas, though certain characters could conceivably have Native American heritage, the “reservations” had nothing to do with tribal lands.  The military-suburban town where Melissa lives and attends school is fairly commonplace for white suburbia, except for the fact that everything is painted black (since dragons have trouble seeing that color when looking from the sky for prey) and everyone’s parents are professionally invested in some sort of national security. The later settings of the novel — which include rugged secret hideaways, unreal reality TV sets, and terrifyingly remote military camps — are much more exciting than Melissa’s hometown but strangely less vivid.  McCune’s descriptive style definitely lost steam as Talker 25 progressed, though the plot was charged enough to keep me interested in how things would turn out.

My favorite part of Talker 25 was unquestionably the dragons themselves.  All the flying around and inter-species alliances were interesting enough, like a more inventive Eragon (with much better writing).  But it was the different voices for each draconian character, and the various personalities Melissa encountered as she navigated the frightening world as a “talker”, which really made a good impression.  Conversations between Melissa and the of-course-he’s-handsome rebel lad who befriends her sounded very canned  now and then.  Even amongst military personnel and the rock-stars of the dragon slaying media, dialogue felt stunted at times.  Luckily, this is not the case with the dragons.  Some really are bloodthirsty nightmares full of spiteful fire.  Some are old and tired, just wanting to be left in peace on their comfortable mountain tops.  Fans of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles will be pleased to meet more than a few devastatingly sarcastic creatures.  A few young dragons can only communicate through feelings and physical expression, and one baby in particular will probably win the hearts of even the most skeptical readers.  Human characters’ bonds with various dragon are significantly more emotional than their bonds with each other, in this book.  Maybe in the coming sequels I will care more about Melissa’s discoveries about her family, and perhaps in further books the fraught romantic elements might make a little more sense.  But based on McCune’s debut, I hope that he plays to his strength in future writing and gives us a lot more dragon dialogue and fewer formulaic human characters.

People will definitely be touting Talker 25 as “The Hunger Games with dragons,” and it’s not an entirely inaccurate label. This book checks off several themes which are getting pretty repetitive in popular, futuristic YA fiction. The violence against conscripted young people; the omnipresent government spooks; the teenagers working under captivity; the gore and mental trauma; even the shock-factor reality TV angle are all present here.  I found several of these elements to be rather unnecessary, though they did make way for some big plot points in the second half of the book, when style and pacing started to lag and something had to keep the story going.

Even though Talker 25 has trouble containing McCune’s energetic ideas, and despite some flaws with style and pacing, I had lots of fun reading this new futuristic YA adventure story.  It was gritty and stressful, and I’m intrigued enough to think that I’ll try to read the inevitable sequel.  My advice to would-be readers is this: try to see this debut novel as a modern fantasy story instead of just another grim teenage thriller with the odd magical creature thrown in.  If you focus on the dragons and the fresh take on knights training  for battle, then the gratuitous make-over scenes and underdeveloped government goons might just fade into background noise.  Because the dragons are great and the concept is fun. If you’re after an exciting series with a few unexpected twists then give McCune a try.  Ever since finishing the book I’ve been gravitating towards my collection of great dragon books from a decade ago, and if this starts a new scaly trend in YA fiction I’ll be happier than a hungry wyvern in a field full of slow-moving cattle.

World Book Night: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Friends, cohorts, everyone-but-my-mortal-enemies, I invite you to celebrate World Book Night with me! By “celebrate World Book Night,” I here mean: I have twenty copies of a really excellent book that I’m giving out for free – do you want one?

 

World Book Night is an annual celebration of books and the joy of reading. On this night, volunteer book-givers wander around with special copies of certain popular books which they hand out for free. The goal is to get books into the hands of people who might not otherwise be avid readers.

source: wikipedia

April 23rd is also Shakespeare’s birthday. (Happy 450th, William. Here, have this book about spies.)

No spare cash to go to the bookstore? Not sure if a certain story is going to be worth your valuable time? Are you waiting for a sign to literally land in your lap, declaring “This is a book you will love and you should read it!” Here’s your sign. I’m handing out a book that I loved – a really fast read with great characters and a thrilling twist – and you don’t have to buy it or remember to return it or anything. Read it, spill coffee on it, lose it in your car somewhere. Whatever. Free books are pretty great, especially when the story’s as good as this one is.

Here’s why I LOVED Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein:

  • Kick-ass girls in WWII: one foul-mouthed and aristocratic Scottish spy, one brilliant and earnest English pilot. Both of them are utterly wonderful, and they’re even better when they’re together.

 

  • Best-friendships are better than romantic relationships. This is a book about two young people trusting one another even when they’re using code-names and flying under blackouts and suffering through Nazi interrogation. There’s no mushy nonsense about star-crossed love or waiting for one’s boyfriend to come home from the war. The fierce friendship between these girls, thrown together in desperate circumstances, is way more powerful than any sentimental entanglements which might happen on the sidelines.

 

  • Inventive story-telling. Code Name Verity begins with one girl’s written memories of how they met and got started in the military. She’s being held prisoner by the Nazis and, under torture and threats, is turning over bits of code and whatever information she can recall, as long as she can have time and paper to write them down. Her confessions take the form of a memoir, with a vivid voice and plenty of anger behind each word. (Also plenty of cursing-out the Nazis, which is well deserved.) But then it switches: after the backstory of their friendship and the drama of military training, the story moves moves forward to a really harrowing denouement. With all the secret missions and coded communications flying around, it’s really interesting to see various angles of the war: from life in England, to the bases, to prisons, to scenes behind enemy lines.

 

  • On that note: Unreliable narrators! Thrilling plot twists! This is the sort of book you’ll want to read a second time, if you haven’t ruined it with your tears or crumpled pages in suspense. There are false leads and hidden messages, double-agents double-crossing each other, cunning misdirections, and secrets everywhere. This is a spy novel, after all. The plot isn’t particularly complicated or difficult to follow – I get easily confused/frustrated by war thrillers but found Code Name Verity to be an easy read. It’s just that once you see how everything comes together in the end you’ll want to go through and see all the clever details working in action.

 

  • A complete story. ‘Cause I, for one, am damned tired of extended YA series. There’s technically a companion novel to Code Name Verity called Rose Under Fire, but this is a book you can read on its own. No slamming the covers shut in frustration after an enormous cliff-hanger ending. No trilogy set-up just to make as much money as possible. The book is exciting and upsetting and a fantastic piece of literature unto itself. So no worries even if you’re a slow reader or are reluctant to get into a book. This one will grab your attention and not leave you feeling cheated at the end.

Who will enjoy Code Name Verity?

  • Anyone who wonders if they’d have the courage to sacrifice their comfortable lives for scary, lonely missions in dangerous locations. (After reading the book, I don’t think I would.)
  • Anyone who has a best friend and knows how that bond can be stronger than patriotism or romance or fear.
  • Anyone who can appreciate a war story focused on the individuals involved as well as the bigger picture. The book features Englishmen, Scots, French resistance fighters, farmers, Nazi interrogators, turncoats, American radio presenters, nameless government officers, and a passel of tiny Glaswegian evacuees who made me laugh when I thought I would be holding my breath forever. You love some characters and despise some others, and then realize near the end that nearly everyone has a side you didn’t see. War turns everyone into an enigma, and this book gets that exactly right.
  • And anyone who likes the idea of young people flying planes, parachuting into war zones, sassing their interrogators, and cracking codes, all the while managing to find something hopeful in their surroundings and comrades. Basically, anyone who looks for something to hold on to in the worst of times.

So, do you want to read Code Name Verity? Do you live within a reasonable distance from me? Get in touch and I’ll try to get it to you tonight. I promise it’s good, and I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t appreciate the story and the characters. Anyway, it’s free. The worst that can happen is you might stay up a little too late, desperate to know what fate has in store for the heroines. Just know that while fate can be cruel and war always sucks, there are always brave people to celebrate. And I haven’t read about braver characters in a very long time.