Review: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow


Hardcover, 384 pages
Published September 22nd 2015 by Margaret K. McElderry Books
Source: Publisher

I am not entirely sure what tone to take with this review. Should I default to my irreverent tone or try to be formal in the report of my experience reading this novel? I don’t know. Let’s just play this by the ear and I’ll tell you what I thought of the novel. I will avoid major spoilers but I will address the very misleading synopsis. In fact, let’s start with the official synopsis:

The world is at peace, said the Utterances. And really, if the odd princess has a hard day, is that too much to ask?

Greta is a duchess and crown princess—and a hostage to peace. This is how the game is played: if you want to rule, you must give one of your children as a hostage. Go to war and your hostage dies.

Greta will be free if she can survive until her eighteenth birthday. Until then she lives in the Precepture school with the daughters and sons of the world’s leaders. Like them, she is taught to obey the machines that control their lives. Like them, she is prepared to die with dignity, if she must. But everything changes when a new hostage arrives. Elián is a boy who refuses to play by the rules, a boy who defies everything Greta has ever been taught. And he opens Greta’s eyes to the brutality of the system they live under—and to her own power.

As Greta and Elián watch their nations tip closer to war, Greta becomes a target in a new kind of game. A game that will end up killing them both—unless she can find a way to break all the rules.

The synopsis focuses on Greta and Elian and the implication is that these two will have some sort of relationship and if you’ve read enough YA novels, you will immediately be bolstered by the belief that the relationship will be a romantic one with shades of insta-love. Elian is important to the narrative and Greta does feel something for him, something that can be construed as a warm feeling but the primary relationship in the narrative is between Greta and Xie, the heir to a monarchy that rules the majority of central Asia. Elian does have an effect on Greta if only to bring to head the simmering political conflicts between Greta’s country and his. And in case the synopsis didn’t clue you in, when countries go to war in their world, the children of the rulers die.

I have read and loved Erin Bow’s previous novels, Plain Kate and Sorrow’s Knot, and fully expected to like this one at the very least. The Scorpion Rules is a step away from the fantasy genre for Bow and a step into the post-apocalyptic genre. Bow’s background in science is very evident in the narrative as she discusses the state of the world after the ice caps melt and the surviving landmass has to be re-negotiated to take in account the decreasing water supply.  In the aftermath of the ice caps melting, an AI, originally created and used by the UN to prevent wars, decides to take over the world. In his words:

Once upon a time, humans were killing each other so fast that total extinction was looking possible, and it was my job to stop them.

Well, I say “my job.” I sort of took it upon myself. Expanded my portfolio a bit. I guess that surprised people. I don’t know how it surprised people–I mean, if they’d been paying the slightest bit of  attention they’d have known that AIs have this built-in tendency to take over the world. Did we learning nothing from The Terminator, people? Did we learn nothing from HAL?

Talis, now the ruler of the world on account of having control of orbital weapons that can destroy entire cities in the blink of an eye, creates Preceptures that house the kids of kings, presidents, regents, people who control countries and have power. His reasoning is that the rulers are more likely to behave when it’s their own blood (figuratively) on the line and for the most part, they do. I do wish it had been under the scope of the book to discuss how these new monarchies came about and to discuss the political realignment of the world but ah well.

Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy is one of the hostages (or as they’re called in the book, Children of Peace) housed in a Precepture located in Saskatoon. She lives with the knowledge that any day might bring a Swan Rider (sort of like the police) to their Precepture for the express purpose of her death. Her country is on the verge of war with a neighbouring country on account of them wanting the water her country doesn’t want to share.

The Scorpion Rules presents the future using language that is frighteningly realistic and Bow’s expression of the future seems less speculative and more prophetic if the world continues progressing in the way it currently is. Greta is raised as one of the children of peace and when the story opens, the Preceptures have accumulated a history spanning 400 years. These children who, if they have the good fortunate to survive till adulthood, will have immense power but during their formative years they are powerless against the dictates of the AIs who rule the Preceptures with iron claws (that’s literal, by the way). Each Precepture is mostly self-sustaining as the human population has had to return to a simpler way of being that doesn’t include poisoning the environment any further.

I loved the dynamics between Greta and her cohort, the understanding that they are all in this plight together but maintaining a deliberate distance in order to survive their deaths which could come without warning. But friendships will not be denied and from Thandi, the African princess to Grego from the Baltic region, Greta and her friends maintain a harmony during the days they spend gardening, learning about war, and chasing goats. These children have been raised as royalty and they know that whatever they face, death or the chance to rule, they must do so with dignity. Then Elian comes and turns everything upside down.

Elian was not born to royalty; he did not grow up knowing that his neck is constantly under a guillotine. He refuses to accept that his life now has an expiry date and his attitude shoves Greta out of the world she has created for herself, making her question what she has accepted without question before.

At this point, the narrative is similar to many others; it diverges considerably though from the moment Elian talks about escape. Greta is a fascinating protagonist; her motivations and actions always have a lot of thought behind them. She understands her limitations and unlike many other protagonists who seek to change the world on nothing but bravado, she knows that she cannot escape Talis.

In The Hunger Games President Snow is explicitly villainous–you may find the logic in his actions but ultimately, he is evil for the actions he takes without regard to human life. Talis, on the other hand, though his actions are just as destructive, cannot be cast as a villain as readily as President Snow. Because he is not human, he is not motivated by human reasoning or emotions. His actions though destructive and horrifying are coldly logical and are the only way to ensure the continuation of the human species. I was fascinated by his character and though the human part of me recoiled at what can be perceived as his cruelty, another part of me agreed with Talis’s tactics as the only way to ensure continued survival.

So yeah, this book will mess with your head. A lot.

But back to Greta. In the coming year, there are many books being released featuring royal protagonists but I sincerely doubt that many of them will be able to emulate the regal bearing, thought, and actions that define Greta.

She maintains a dignity even under threat of torture, pain, and death.

“But I’m not frightened.” I was…something different than frightened.

Da-Xia lifted a regal to wave to everyone, to show we are all right.

“I’m not,” I said, more firmly. “If a queen is quiet, it is not because she is frightened.”

The book is brutal. As is Bow’s habit, she doesn’t shy away from showing the more unsavoury aspects of living under what amounts to a dictatorship. There’s death, blood, and torture but none of it is gratuitous. The ending, too, leaves the reader with food for thought as is appropriate. The book stands alone though I understand there is a companion novel in the works.

I think older teens will enjoy The Scorpion Rules immensely and I think adults will be pleasantly surprised by the complexity of the narrative and the characters Bow has created. I strongly recommend this novel.

16 responses to “Review: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

  1. I actually like the idea for this dystopia. Too many YA dystopias are full of weird, complicated systems that no one would actually obey. Here, the stakes are very clear – behave or your children die! I may check this one out, even though I don’t normally go for this genre.

    • That was the most interesting point of the novel, I thought. You are primed to take the side of the one who is being treated unfairly only…in the grand scheme of things, you can’t decide who is the one on the right.

  2. I want it! Environmental destruction? Compelling characters and no insta-love? I’m even more in! *goestoputonChristmasList*

  3. I just finished this! I have feelings! I’m going to write a bit about it next week and probably specifically the use of the slow build (and how that compares with “race start” so beloved of so many books). Also, Greta is SO WELL DRAWN.

    And the romance just worked so well for me. A perfect blend of heartwarming and heartbreaking.

      • He was awful. But funny.

        Bow manages a very very hard balance between this horrific system and showing how people would be invested in it, how the children would be groomed for it.

        Is it better than our messy world? Is it still messy? Is it just? Is it merciful? I felt as if she answers those questions by not answering them, by implying that they can’t be answered. I never felt the author was trying to suggest this was a good thing, or a bad thing, but a thing. Maybe I was just projecting though. I never felt lectured to, and that’s quite a feat to pull off.

        • Oh totally. I quite agree. She manages to discuss something quite complex in a very approachable way. Her lack of ‘preaching’ is why I like this so much. I feel like she presented the facts (so to speak) in a very objective way and let the reader make the conclusions.

          • Yes. This exactly.
            Too much modern narrative (including some dystopian YA) sets up essentialism and then we are meant to know who to root for and who against, and all the violence is okay because the Evil Guys are Evil. Not a fan of this. Might as well be American Exceptionalism in other guise.

            • Yes! There are so many instances in so many books where bad guys are killed or done away with without second thought simply because they are considered ‘bad guys’ and I am left scrambling for a greater exploration of the gray moral area which deals with the consequences of taking a life no matter its perceived goodness or badness.

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