Book Review: The Scorpion Rules (Prisoners of Peace), Erin Bow (2015)

September 21st, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

The Twilight of Your Love

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review though NetGalley. Trigger warning for torture. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

I’m not a cruel man, Talis is recorded as saying. Only rarely is the next bit quoted: I mean, technically I’m not a man at all.

I was born to a crown. This was my crown – a cage for the head.

It’s a strange word, “twilight.” It makes me think of endings, of things done or left undone, of things over, of evening. But there are two twilights in every day, and one of them does not foretell darkness, but dawn. In this twilight, something new was opening up before me.

Dear Potential Readers: Do not judge this book by its cover. (Possibly Unpopular Opinion Time: I kind of hate it.) Take the publisher’s synopsis with a spoonful of salt. Forget everything you think and know and feel about love triangles, Strong Female Leads, and the Three Laws of Robotics. Unpack your expectations and leave them at the door. The Scorpion Rules is an inventive, unique spin on the YA scifi/dystopia genre that subverts and upends existing tropes and conventions. IT IS DAZZLING.

Set four hundred+ years in the future, the world of The Scorpion Rules is one both painfully familiar and foreign to our own. Climate change caused the polar ice caps to melt, leading to massive flooding, which in turn caused wide scale displacement, poverty, and food shortages. As borders shifted and disappeared altogether, wars raged over rapidly diminishing resources, water chief among them. Humans were quickly destroying each other – and the planet. The United Nations tasked Talis, one of their top Artificial Intelligences, with finding a solution. They didn’t expect him to take over the world.

After blowing a few strategically chosen cities off the face of the map – just a way to get everyone’s attention, mind you – Talis proposed a new way of doing things. The AI looked backwards in history so that he might push humanity forward: drawing upon the Roman tradition of hostage-taking, Talis demanded that the rulers – be it goddess, queen, president, or general – of each country surrender to him their children. He would keep them safe and educate them in one of his high-tech Preceptures, to be released at the age of eighteen (and presumably, marry, procreate, and assume leadership their own bad selves). In the interim, should their country engage in war, the child’s life would be forfeit.

Go to war, I kill your children. Injecting a little royal skin into the game, if you will.

This system has worked, more or less, for several centuries. Conflicts do occur, but not as frequently and with less damage: in his infinite wisdom, Talis also limited weaponry to that with an effective range of one hundred yards: “If you want blood, then I want it all over your hands.”

Our narrator and soon-to-be-hero is one Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy, a 7th generation hostage. Together with six of her teenage peers, she lives in Precepture Four in Saskatchewan, where they study politics and philosophy and make use of appropriate technology. (“No to petroleum-driven personal transportation and chemical fertilizers. Yes to transcranial magnetic psychotherapy.”)

All of the kids live in a near-constant state of fear, though some more than most. Greta and her friend Sidney know that their countries are on the brink of war: the PanPol Confederacy has water, and the Mississippi Delta Conference needs it. When they spot the telltale plume of dust kicked up by a Swan Rider crossing the plains, Greta rightly thinks she’s done for – and yet dear Sidney is the only one taken to the grey room. Five weeks later, a new hostage arrives in his place: a scrappy, defiant teenager named Elián Palnik, grandson of Wilma Armenteros, leader of the newly-formed Cumberland Alliance.

His presence – loud, rebellious, unrefined – threatens to upend their practiced peace, as his radical ideas make Greta question centuries of tradition.

There’s so, so much I love about this book, you guys. Let’s start with the AI. I love stories that feature intelligences greater than us, whether they’re synthetic or organic: the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica, Terminator’s Skynet, the chimps and gorillas and orangutans in Planet of the Apes, the Oankali responsible for Lilith’s Brood. Usually I find myself rooting for our robot overlords/alien invaders, at least on some level; after all, we humans had our shot at governing the planet, and so far we’ve made a huge mess of it. We’re rapidly depleting the earth’s resources, altering the climate at unprecedented rates, and wiping out entire species of fellow animals. We divide one another into various categories based on arbitrary, self-serving criteria – race, class, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, species membership – and then use these divisions to excuse and justify the oppression and exploitation of “others.”

Quite possibly, AI or alien leadership might be a step up from humans. If not? Welp, they’re smarter, stronger, and more advanced than us – so, according to our own rules of power and dominance, they deserve to sit at the top of the hierarchy. They beat us at our own game! Howdya like them apples?

So anyway, I was so, so ready to root for Talis. I mean, his reasoning as laid out in the synopsis seems pretty solid. There’s usually nothing that parents cherish more than their children, so keeping kids hostage to prevent mass bloodshed seems a fair exchange. The greater good, yes? Presumably most of these kids will be returned home safely, since no king or chieftain would dare risk war with his own child’s life in the balance.

Except it doesn’t always work as planned: there aren’t enough resources to go around, making conflict inevitable. Also, if a nation is attacked, under Talis’s rules they aren’t allowed to defend themselves without sacrificing their children in turn. This hardly seems fair but, then again, I suppose it gives more powerful nations additional incentive to negotiate and “play nice” with their impoverished neighbors. Still, it seems that getting to the root of the problem – too many people/not enough resources – would prove a more fruitful and humane strategy. (Maybe in the sequel?)

More problematic is how the Children of Peace are treated at the Preceptures. Though they don’t pose much of a threat to the AI – many of them are little children, after all – total obedience is expected, even in thought. (“Never lie to an AI” – because they can read your vital signs.) Troublemakers are subject to torture: through electroshock, with drugs, and by isolation. Likewise, their cohort also suffers the consequences, albeit in more minor forms (the loss of privileges, like fresh air or water for bathing, for example). In short, human rights abuses abound.

Yet I still kind of love Talis. If nothing else, his intentions are noble, plus he’s so damn fun and witty. And more complex in thought and emotion than is betrayed by first impressions. There’s nothing typical or cartoonish about this “villain.”

** spoiler alert! **

Part of me wondered, as it always does, why Talis and the other AI didn’t just obliterate humanity in order to achieve peace. (Think: Mulder’s botched wish for world peace in “Je Souhaite.”) We’re such major fuckups, why keep us around?

Alas, THERE’S A REASON FOR THIS: As one of just a handful of surviving Class Two Turing Intelligences, Talis needs us. Class Twos are AIs “whose ‘birth’ involved the upload of a copied human psyche” – they were once human. Given that this process was in its infancy when the world went to rot, it was never perfected; most humans die during the upload, or shortly thereafter (in a pretty amazing-horrifying process called “skinning”). Talis wants more AI companions, and for that he needs fresh meat.

This also suggests that truly artificial intelligence doesn’t exist; rather, this AI of the future is a marriage of man and machine. The other AIs, while highly functioning, don’t appear to be sentient.

** end spoiler alert! **

I mentioned that The Scorpion Rules is chock full of surprises – and Talis is just one of many. At first I thought I knew where the story was headed, but around the 40% mark, Bow throws in a second conflict, followed by an impossible solution. The ending is simply breathtaking and sets the stage for what could be a most amazing sequel.

The characters are a breath of fresh air too. Many of the kids show remarkable restraint in their behavior and affect; while this might come off as blandness or even a lack of dimension, I attributed it to their royal breeding and disciplined upbringing. And once Elián arrives to shake things up, it quickly becomes evident that the pot was close to boiling over anyway: the Children of Peace are much more turbulent than they appear on the surface. Everyone but Greta, but luckily rebellion is communicable.

Also both compelling and complex are the kids’ relationships with their parents – who love them enough to nominate them as hostages, but not enough to forfeit their power. That’s got to make for some awkward family dinners, don’t you think?

While the plot unfolds in North America, the cast is international and thus fairly diverse (and often in unexpected ways).

* Li Da-Xia (“Xie”), the Daughter of the Heavenly Throne, is a goddess from the Mountain Glacials in Yunnan (Yunnan is in China and is at the far eastern edge of the Himalayan uplift).

* Thandi is heir to one of the great thrones of Africa and speaks Xhosa (one of the official Bantu languages of South Africa; the Xhosa people live in southeastern South Africa).

* Gregori Kalvelis (“Grego”) is the son of a grand duke of the Baltic Alliance and is Lithuanian in descent; he suffers from albinism and has had cybernetics implanted in his eyes to more effectively regulate light.

* Atta Paşa, a prince in the line of the Prophet, is “from Vlad’s part of the world” (Romania?), while the surname Paşa suggests Turkish descent.

* Han, who we learn little of, save for he’s small and slight and bad with subtext and sarcasm.

* Sidney Carlow is the son of governor of Mississippi Delta Conference.

* Elián Palnik’s father is a Jewish sheep farmer from Kentucky. His grandmother is Wilma Armenteros, leader of the Cumberland Alliance; her great-great-etc-grandfather led the evacuation of Miami. Between his grandmother’s surname; the fact that his matrilineal line hails from Miami; and his loose, dark curls, I got the impression that he was part Latino.

There’s more, but spoilers. Suffice it to say that two of the teens are bisexual, and their romance takes the plot in a pretty lovely direction.

One quibble: The casting of Thandi as the Angry Black Woman made me uncomfortable at times. For example, Thandi frequently calls the Eurocentric bent of the curriculum into question (oh how little we’ve changed). On the one hand, she’s got plenty of reasons to be angry (one of which, we later learn, was prolonged torture when she first entered the Preceptures); on the other, so do they all. One could either interpret this as a rational response to an unjust system – or some pernicious racial stereotyping. Or both!

Also, I hope the finished copy of the book includes a world map and/or character guide. My grasp of the various nations is still rather hazy; and, while Bow gives a decent amount of info on the Children (Han excepted, and Thandi could’ve been fleshed out more too), I had to cobble the bullet points together using bits and pieces of info scattered throughout the book. It’s like a scavenger hunt – all too easy to overlook a crucial detail. Not that I’d have her structure the book differently – but having the pertinent details gathered in one place for easy reference would be nice too.

Read it if: You’re looking to diversify your shelves; you need more life-changing/life-ruining same-sex romances in your world; you love YA scifi/dystopias but crave something fresh and new.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! The story is about seven teenage Children of Peace – the sons and daughters of world leaders, held hostage as a means of discouraging war, by Talis, the AI who rules the world four hundred years in the future. While the plot unfolds in North America, the cast is international and thus fairly diverse (and often in unexpected ways).

* Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy, a 7th generation hostage and our hero/narrator. She’s very fair; white, with blonde hair and a wolf-like face. She’s also bisexual: she has relationships with both Elián and Xie.

* Li Da-Xia (“Xie”), the Daughter of the Heavenly Throne, is a goddess from the Mountain Glacials in Yunnan (Yunnan is in China and is at the far eastern edge of the Himalayan uplift). She’s also bi; while Atta is her longtime “playing coyotes” companion, she and Greta eventually fall in love. Xie became pregnant and suffered a miscarriage when she was just 15 (Atta was the father).

* Thandi is heir to one of the great thrones of Africa and speaks Xhosa (one of the official Bantu languages of South Africa; the Xhosa people live in southeastern South Africa).

* Gregori Kalvelis (“Grego”) is the son of a grand duke of the Baltic Alliance and is Lithuanian in descent; he suffers from albinism and has had cybernetics implanted in his eyes to more effectively regulate light.

* Atta Paşa, a prince in the line of the Prophet, is “from Vlad’s part of the world” (Romania?), while the surname Paşa suggests Turkish descent.

* Han, who we learn little of, save for he’s small and slight and bad with subtext and sarcasm.

* Sidney Carlow is the son of governor of Mississippi Delta Conference.

* Elián Palnik’s father is a Jewish sheep farmer from Kentucky. His grandmother is Wilma Armenteros, leader of the Cumberland Alliance; her great-great-etc-grandfather led the evacuation of Miami. Between his grandmother’s surname; the fact that his matrilineal line hails from Miami; and his loose, dark curls, I got the impression that he was part Latino. (Elián is Sidney’s replacement.)

The story also references two Children of Peace who were killed in the years preceding the story: Vitor and Bihn.

Animal-friendly elements: Not really. Even though climate change has led to water and food shortages – and animal agriculture is resource-intensive – the Children keep goats and make cheese from their milk. Greta explains that “Light pastoral use is one of the better ways to live off the land in a near desert” – even though they seem to have little trouble growing plant-based foods, including apples, potatoes, zucchini, and pumpkins (to name a few). Call me crazy, but you’d think that Talis would have outlawed animal agriculture along with cars and air conditioning.

When the goats get loose, Elián wrestles on to the ground via a headlock; the son of a sheep farmer, he also dismisses them as “dumb.”
 

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