So, Erin Bow. I adored Plain Kate and had quite a few problems with Sorrow's Knot (and ultimately didn't like it because of those problems). After SK I thought "well, maybe that first time was a fluke, me liking it anyway, since I didn't even see the prose I adored in PK in SK" and when I saw it was more or less set in a dystopia that really didn't make me excited for the book. But it got good buzz so it ended up on my to-read list after all and here we are, I finished it which is always a good sign!
The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow
Centuries into the future, much of the world has changed and much has stayed the same. Climate change was irreversible, wars are fought over land and water and while the method of warfare remains similar to the current day, the stakes are a little different. For you see, there is Talis, the all seeing AI in the sky who thought "let's make it personal". To be a leader on Earth you must surrender one of your children, under 18, to Talis and they will be raised by him, kept apart from the world except for other AIs and other "Children of Peace." You start a war? Your child dies. You are attacked and fight back? Your child still dies.
This has not stopped wars but it has changed them maybe a bit. Greta is close to being 18 and free but as the future ruler of the Pan Polar Confederation (Canada) she is all to-aware of how precarious her future is. There are only months left but with shake-ups in the American Federations all she can hope is that she is able to meet her death with dignity.
Dystopia is not precisely the right word for this setting, as I expected, but it is certainly not a happy future. I'm tempted to be petty and say "it can't be a dystopia since it's actually a believable world" but it's the truth, we see, very throughly, through the characters that there is no way to save this world. There is no hope for long-lasting peace, even with more visible lives on the line more or less everything has been tried to either stop wars or to keep the children away from Talis (which has ended with even more repercussions). There are a lot of times when I read a book and think "oh but why isn't the character doing that, why aren't they clever enough?" which really breaks the mood of the story and yet it never happened once here. The book isn't overloaded with expository scenes of Greta explaining to newcomer Elian how all of his ideas, both to escape the compound in the Prefecture and in the larger world, won't work, instead we get snippets and then lots of scenes of "Spartacus'" plans backfiring. This is another way that this book doesn't feel like most dystopian stories, in those the reader is supposed to be filled with hope even in the worst circumstances, because clearly we're reading this story about this particular character for some reason. Scorpion Rules has more tragedy elements in it, not plot wise but in the plight of Greta and the other children.
There is a plot holding the second half of the book together but this book is intensely character-driven throughout. The characters are constantly being presented and compared against each other by the reader, how Greta sometimes envies her roommate who comes from a secure, stable region of the world and fears that her own life will not be so pleasant. Greta has seen her classmates die, not in person of course but there is never any doubt that when someone goes to the gray room they die. Greta is a mixture of stoic, demure determination as she lives and leads and also quiet fears as she writes to her mother to not let her own death catch her unawares, to give her a warning so she might walk down to the gray room with poise and dignity.
Against all of that we also see possibly the most tragic figure, newcomer Elian. It's not his parents who rule part of the Americas, it's his grandmother and from the shadows, his parents fled civilization long ago to live a hermit-like sheep farmers so he's been literally wrestled from what everyone thought was the safest place to one where his death is almost assured, even though like Greta he's nearly 18. For Greta and the others there is at least some comfort that they love their countries, love their parents, and some element of trust, Elian has none of that so his anger feels completely expected. Despite all of that however, I'm glad he's not the main character. We've seen rebellious (for good reasons) teens before, and in those stories Greta would be the tragic figure who inevitably gets killed off to show how the story is "getting real". Frankly the story is just really well constructed plays around with these and other role reversals far better than I expected and that's what made me enjoy it so much.
Speaking of enjoyment, before I started reading I saw Bow mentioning that she gets a lot of reader fanmail of people saying how much they like Talis which is surprising since he wasn't even in the early drafts*. Looking at the context, I'm not sure if she means Talis-the-machine or Talis-the-personality but I've assumed the later, if she meant the former then yes, how the heck did the story hold together without several orbital lasers to scare the world into submission? So when I started reading the book it seemed immediately obvious why people liked Talis, the story is set in the future but Talis clearly comes from around our own time going by his seemingly endless references and jokes pulled from pop-culture and repurposed into darker meanings. I mean, every fandom likes the villain/anti-hero but I think I sold the other fans short since by the end, yeah I like the character of Talis as much as I liked Greta. We do come to understand Talis more in the later parts of the book so there is more to him than snark (although I still feel like his idea of "to rule you must have a kid" is suspiciously heteronormative in a rather diverse book) but since a lot of this is closely tied to the plot I'm going to avoid going into details. Instead I'll say, given how much I've already praised the lead and important side character in this story, do you really think the mover and shaker of the world wouldn't receive an equally nuanced and interesting treatment?
In the end, I really enjoyed this book. I think I still like Plain Kate a little more but this was also a great story. I was a bit surprised to hear that there is a sequel in the works, I mentioned this on twitter and Bow actually responded to me and said she also thought this was a standalone work until about the end of this book when she realized there were still themes she wanted to explore and that's pretty similar to what my feelings were. That this story had come to a good stopping point but if you wanted to there was still a comfortable amount of room to go even farther. So I'm eagerly awaiting this follow-up (coming in the fall) and in the meantime yes, I highly recommend this book, can I interest you in excerpts from her books?
*for those interested, the early early drafts of the story were actually the fall of the Aztec empire in the 1500s but all of her work was literally stolen. So I guess that explains the child sacrifice.