“Whatever you may wish, you’re a drug lord now and must learn to behave like one.” –Celia to Matt, page 11.
(warning: contains spoilers for The House of the Scorpion)
Published eleven years after The House of Scorpion, I finally find out what happens to Matt in Nancy Farmer’s sequel, The Lord of Opium. Now that El Patrón is dead, Matt Alacrán is no longer a lowly clone but the new Lord of Opium, and along with El Patrón’s vast resources and power, he has inherited a boatload of problems. El Patrón’s death–and his convenient murder of all his funeral guests, including the Dope Confederacy’s drug lords and the entire Alacrán family–has left Opium in lock down and the surrounding drug countries in a power vacuum.
Not only must Matt prove to El Patrón’s men that he’s capable of ruling Opium, he must rely on their help without being sure of whether he can fully trust them. Cienfuego, head of the Farm Patrol–Opium’s thuggish security force–knows far too much about border defense. And just outside, super creepy drug lord Glass Eye Dabengwa is itching to invade. Dr. Rivas is the only medical doctor left in Opium, but is clearly keeping secrets of his own. Meanwhile, Matt wants to disband his entire sordid drug empire. That means finding a way to free the eejits who work the poppy fields by removing the microchips implanted deeply in their brains. But the more Matt learns about the process, the more impossible his task seems.
And it’s a lonely job. Celia won’t let him take his meals with her in the kitchen anymore, as not to give his underlings a reason to disrespect him or think him childish. Cienfuegos keeps pestering him to pick a drug lord title that inspires fear, nicknames like El Tigre Oscuro or El Vengador. Matt tries to reach Waitress, an eegit girl his own age, through stimuli like food and music, but she is too heavily microchipped for him to make a connection. And Maria, Matt’s sweetheart, is stuck on the other side of a portal, as are his plankton factory friends Chacho, Fidelito, and Ton-Ton. Sometimes, Matt’s only company is the strange voice in his head–which sounds suspiciously like El Patrón–that surfaces only when the stakes are ruthlessly high.
If The House of the Scorpion is structured like a mystery with many hints converging into one shocking revelation, then The Lord of Opium is like many headaches diverging from Matt’s newly acquired position. It’s almost too many threads to juggle, and although Farmer ties up all the loose ends, I would have preferred if she delved into the complexity of a few situations rather than address everything with less depth. For example, Matt’s struggle with whether it is acceptable to resort to El Patrón-like tactics in order to prevent future atrocities was more interesting than his Waitress project. And while I was disappointed by how little Maria and Celia contributed to the story, I did enjoy meeting the memorable and intriguing new characters Farmer brought to life in this sequel.
In Scorpion, Matt’s triumph over the enormously evil El Patrón depended on the friendship of people like Celia, Tam Lin, and Maria. This time around, Matt is able to order people to help him solve Opium’s problems. While this is very impressive, I prefer both the structure and the character dynamics of the original.