The Scorpion Rules

Looking for a book like any other?  One with a love triangle and maybe an evil despot?  Or maybe one where a manic pixie dream girl gets a horrible disease and falls in love with someone and changes his life forever?

This is not that book.  This a YA book with guts and soul and vision.  This is a future that you might call a quiet nightmare of tyranny, or you might just call it inevitable.

Some years from now, humans will attempt to achieve immortality by uploading their consciousnesses into hardware, becoming AI.  Only, the process isn't without some danger.  Most AIs don't survive the transfer.  One very motivated and intelligent boy does.  Talis looks at the world and decides, "Right.  These meatheads can't take care of themselves.  I'm going to have to do it for them."  And so begins the reign of the AI and a return to ancient war prevention methods, namely, the trading of hostages.

Quick rundown: in Ye Olden Dayes, it was pretty common practice for countries/empires/tribes to send a royal child to the enemy's court as a hostage.  There, the child would be raised, educated, and treated pretty well.  I mean, as well as you could expect for being a prisoner sent to live with enemies by your parents!  This was supposed to protect against war, the thought being that Ruler A wouldn't do something rash and declare war on Ruler B while A's son/daughter was living at the court of B, because then his/her child's life would be forfeit.  I mean, as far as deterrence goes, it's not the worst strategy in the world.  It's certainly less dangerous that mutually assured destruction. I don't think the kids would particularly enjoy it, but nobody asks them!

So, here we are, five hundred years in the future.  The singularity has occurred, AIs are sentient, and they've done what sensible, practical, neurotic people have always feared: they've taken over.  Talis addresses this in the prologue, which begins "Once Upon a Time, at the End of the World."

Except ... all things considered, it's actually not so bad.  After the War Storms--"a global series of regional wars"-- and Talis' intervention using orbital weapons to blast cities into nothingness, there is peace.  Because now it's personal.

All rulers of the various little states the world has split up into--confederacies and kingdoms and empires and duchies--must give their ruler's child to the United Nations and Talis to serve as the Children of Peace.  If one of the nations declares war on another, the corresponding child is executed.  Talis sends emissaries called Swan Riders to do this.  They are beautiful harbingers of death.  And no one wants to see the plume of dust kicked up by their arrival.  For death is inevitable once you are brought into the grey room by the Swan Rider.

Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy, spends her days, then years, as a hostage at Precepture Four in Saskatchewan.  The official hostages aren't treated like royalty: they must harvest the alfalfa, chase the goats, fetch the water, and mend the farm equipment.  Talis intends for them to learn something we have, as humans, but recently forgotten: how to live with what we need rather than what we want.  But they always know that this is no ordinary farm: the Panopticon atop the main building watches their every move, and the Abbot, a lower-grade AI, keeps the system running according the the Utterances of Talis.

Greta, Xie, Thandi, Grego, and Han are among the eldest hostages.  One day, a hostage arrives from the Cumberland Alliance.  Elián is hotheaded, sarcastic, and provocative.  He's assigned a proctor--a robot guard--that resembles a scorpion, and every time Elián says something out of line (which is very, very often) he is shocked.  And not like a little shock.  Think cattle prod.  The more he resists, the more the entire group of the Children of Peace are punished.  They're supposed to work together, but Elián thinks of himself as Spartacus, leader of a revolution.

This is the part where, in most other books, Greta would fall in love with Elián, they would fight the proctors, the Abbot, and Talis, and escape into a Whole New World of Truth and Freedom from the System.

This isn't other books.  This is Erin Bow's The Scorpion Rules, and she's laying the new ground rules for young adult fiction right here.  This isn't really a dystopia (although at first the reader might think so): it's more of a sci-fi political thriller with a dash of romance and a soupçon of space opera (although it's set here on Earth).  Every time you think you know where the story is going, Bow pulls a sneaky 180 and blows your mind.  Again, and again, and again.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot, because it's just too intricate to spoil, but I will say that Greta is a phenomenal protagonist.  We see her grow as a future ruler and as a teenage girl coming to know her own mind and heart.  She learns to let go, which sounds corny, but it's something I haven't mastered as a so-called grown-up.

My e-ARC has so many bookmarks that I have to keep scrolling and scrolling to find what I want to reference.  Most of them are highlights of Bow's lyrical writing, and the rest reflect me reacting to another plot twist.  I'm already recommending this to people, and it's not even out yet.  Pre-order it, then!

This is one of those reviews where I don't have anything to say because I feel it all too much.

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.


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