Already a big fan of Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, The Eye, and the Arm, when The House of the Scorpion came out in 2002, I sat down at Barnes & Nobles to speed-read all 380 pages in one sitting while my parents did their Costco shopping. Wolfing a book down is no way to read, but I remember leaving the bookstore in a chilled daze that had nothing to do with the strong air conditioning. Clones grown in cows’ stomachs, a criminal empire controlled by a man who wants to live forever, people made obedient to the point of automation–The House of the Scorpion was unlike anything I had ever read.
Fast-forward eleven years, where futuristic dystopias are a dime a dozen, and Scorpion still holds up brilliantly. Its world is unkind and full of secrets, as six-year-old Matteo Alacrán discovers when his isolated but comfortable existence under loving Celia’s care is shattered by the public realization that he is El Patrón’s clone. Reviled by El Patrón’s family and household, life as the ruthless drug lord’s clone does have its privileges, such as El Patrón’s keen attention, a first rate education, and a canny bodyguard named Tam Lin. In return, Matt adores the old man and wants desperately to prove himself as worthy of taking over the family business as El Patrón’s natural born heirs–even as he uncovers secret after damning secret concerning El Patrón’s empire, true nature, and plans for Matt’s future.
Like all great works of science fiction and fantasy, Farmer’s characters exist in a fully realized world that rings true. The futuristic Opium ruled by El Patrón is steeped in history that could well have diverged from our present and future. The plot, character development, setting, and sci-fi work seamlessly to advance and strengthen the story; no aspect is sacrificed, neglected, or waved away by Technology. Instead, with perfectly timed reveals and intelligent storytelling, Farmer rewards readers for paying close attention and thinking. Often, she will hint at clues that readers will be able to put together before Matt does–although to be fair, Matt is slightly younger than the target audience. Also, Farmer makes Matt and the reader confront all sorts of issues that come up in her story: bioethics, good and evil, free will, guilt, equality and socialism, immigration and labor, even water usage in the west.
Having revisited The House of the Scorpion, I can’t wait to get my hands on its sequel, The Lord of Opium, which comes out this October. Needless to say, you will not find me devouring it in gulps at a Barnes & Nobles this time around. No, books of this caliber need to be savored.