The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow. ★★★1/2
While The Scorpion Rules is a mixed bag, it’s ultimately one of the better YA dystopians I’ve come across.
Four hundred years ago, the humanity was on the edge of destruction when an AI named Talis decided to take control. After destroying a few cities, Talis instituted some rules for his new world order. All countries’s rulers must give up their own children as hostages. If a country goes to war, the hostage dies. Greta is a crown princess and one of the Children of Peace who live in the remote Precepture school. Her country is on the edge of war and so Greta lives on the edge of death. Greta doesn’t question the inevitable path of her life until a new boy is brought to school, one who refuses to accept the rules Greta’s been living with her entire life.
If you’re anything like me, your eyes probably would have started rolling at some point in that blurb, likely when I mentioned the “new boy” who “refuses to play by the rules” and “makes Greta question the system.” Basically the only reason I ended up reading it was because I’d heard the protagonist was bisexual. Luckily, I enjoyed The Scorpion Rules much more than I was expecting.
The stand out element of The Scorpion Rules was Greta, our princess narrator. Greta is quite and restrained, subtle and stoic. She knows she will die, and she’s accepted it. The most she hopes for is that she will find the strength to die with dignity and not shame her country. She’s entirely internalized the idea that she does not have any control or choice in her life, and it was a delight to see her begin to reclaim her right to choice.
Aside from Greta, I never cared much for any of the characters, except possibly Talis, the egotistical AI overlord. On one hand he fascinates me and his voice tends to be hilariously casual and breezy, but on the other hand I sort of want to punch him in the face.
I’m glad that Greta is bisexual and that her female love interest doesn’t get pushed aside to focus on the male love interest, but I still didn’t care much about the love triangle. This is a likely causality of me not having much investment in the supporting cast. Besides from one of the love interests being a girl, it was a fairly typical formula. One of them is the best friend who’s always been there for her. The other is the New Guy who’s opened her eyes to the dangers of the system. Those two lines could describe a plethora of YA dystopian novels. Thankfully, this one at least didn’t actively annoy me.
The pacing was probably slower than is the norm for the genre, and there’s generally far less action, since the focus is more on Greta’s characterization. I did find the pacing all right for the first half of the novel, but it seemed to slaw to a crawl near the end. However, I do love that The Scorpion Rules went in a direction I genuinely would not have predicted.
The world building felt very sketchy. The whole future prediction is dubious and seems to rest on some very shaky foundations – the water table started rising just like that? For the most part I was able to raise an eyebrow and move on, but don’t expect any great feats of world building here.
The Scorpion Rules is a book that seems to garner a lot of love/hate reactions. Some reviews will ask “Why are there so many goats in this book?” while others will exclaim, “I loved the goats!” (personally, I really liked the goats). My own feelings seem to fall in between the extremes. I liked The Scorpion Rules enough to read the sequel, but I’m still glad that I got this one from the library.