“The Scorpion Rules” by Erin Bow

the-scorpion-rules-erin-bow

“The Scorpion Rules” sat on my TBR list for a long time because I felt it was going to be grim and I didn’t feel up to it. It is grim but it is also a beautifully told story about really bad things.

The basic premise is that, 400 years before the story, a (formally human) AI, Talis, took over the world, to save humanity from destroying themselves, and made war illegal. Talis takes a “Child Of Peace” from every ruler and holds them hostage. In the event that war is declared, the lives of the hostages of the warring parties are forfeit. The story is told from the point of view of a fifteen year old Crown Princess Greta, who has been held hostage since she was five and who will continue as a hostage until she is eighteen.

At this point you might think you know where this novel is going. Greta is the victim of an evil, despotic, AI.  A new hostage, Elián arriveswho, to quote the publishers blurb  “refuses to play by the rules, a boy who defies everything Greta has ever been taught” disrupts everything and who constantly tries to escape. Next, we’d expect some kind of “Hunger Games”, “Divergent” rebellion in which our girl and boy hero struggle to free the world from evil.

Yeah, well, that shows you the wicked sense of humour that Erin Bow has. She’s not going there. She’s going somewhere new and exciting and difficult and constantly surprising.

This isn’t a book for fans of action-packed, thrillers where the main function of the dystopian construct is to give the teens the chance to rebel while falling in love. I’ve seen lots of one star reviews for this book where the reader was “bored”, “confused” or “so didn’t care”. They should open a copy of “Maze Runner” and move on.

This is a book about power and responsibility and obedience and sacrifice and dealing with the reality that people will always find a way to go to war and that other people than the ones who took that decision will pay for it in blood.

It’s also a character driven book.

Greta is a wonderful creation. She lives each day knowing that today she might be asked to walk calmly from her school desk, abandon her studies of languages and politics, and submit with dignity to her death in the Gray Room. She is deeply afraid that she will fail and dishonour herself. She holds on to her sanity through rigorous study and discipline. She is so focused on this that she does not understand her power over her peers, does not see how she is loved, does not take in the struggles of the people around her. Until things change.

Talis is not some cardboard cut-out evil AI. He is witty and charismatic and thoughtful and capable of great compassion. He is also ruthless, deadly, and barely remembers what it meant to be human.

The relationships between the characters are not what they’d first seem or what the dystopian genre has led us to expect. Greta cares as much for the Abbot AI who is both her jailer and her mentor as she does for her mother.Elián is not the love interest, even though he wants to be, that role falls, in a quite delightful way to Xie who is a Princess and a Goddess to her people.

The ending… well I won’t discuss it here except to say that it was as disturbing as it was unexpected.

“The Scorpion Rules” is a book of strong emotions and a good deal of violence. Not the blow ’em up and count the bodies vidoe-game sort of violence, but the slow, vicious, cruel kind of violence that changes everyone touched by it.”Scorpion Rules” made me think. It made me angry and it twisted my emotions around the writer’s little finger.

Wonderful stuff.

So wonderful that I put the next book, “The Swan Riders” on pre-order. It arrived yesterday. It WON’T linger in my TBR pile.

Madeleine Maybe does a superb job of narrating “The Scorpion Rules”. Take a listen the extract below which has Talis explaining his first rule of stopping wars: make it personal.

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