Monday, February 9, 2015

Review: The House of the Scorpion - Nancy Farmer

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
Series: Matteo Alacran #1
Genre: YA, science fiction
Published on September 1, 2002
Published by Atheneum
Pages: 380
Read From: 2.4.15 - 2.6.15

At his coming-of-age party, Matteo Alacran asks El Patron's bodyguard, "How old am I? . . . I know I don't have a birthday like humans, but I was born." 
"You were harvested," Tam Lin reminds him. "You were grown in that poor cow for nine months and then you were cut out of her." 
To most people around him, Matt is not a boy, but a beast. A room full of chicken litter with roaches for friends and old chicken bones for toys is considered good enough for him. But for El Patron, lord of a country called Opium - a strip of poppy fields lying between the U.S. and what was once called Mexico - Matt is a guarantee of eternal life. El Patron loves Matt as he loves himself for Matt is himself. They share identical DNA. 
As Matt struggles to understand his existence, he is threatened by a sinister, grasping cast of characters, including El Patron's power-hungry family. He is surrounded by a dangerous army of bodyguards and by the mindless slaves of Opium, brain-deadened eejits who tail in the poppy fields. 
And escape from the Alacran Estate is no guarantee of freedom because Matt is marked by his difference in ways he doesn't even suspect. Around every turn in this vivid, futuristic adventure is a new, heart-stopping surprise.


Initial Thoughts: This is a book that has been on my TBR for years - ever since 2002, in fact - but I never picked it up because it sounded too weird. I finally challenged myself to read it. The House of the Scorpion is weird, creepy, slightly disturbing and unsettling, but it's not the weird that the synopsis leads you to believe. It provokes a lot of thought and contemplation, and I enjoyed it a lot more than I was expecting.

Characters: It's hard to not feel sorry for Matt. He's abused and kept ignorant; treated like an animal. Then, when he's raised by El Patron, he's ignored and made aware of his inferiority as a clone. His only real friends are Maria, his nurse Celia, and his bodyguard Tam Lin. But even Tam Lin and Celia are keeping secrets from him and Maria mostly treats him like a pet, not an equal. So while he has everything he could possibly want, he's still inferior and a prisoner. I loved Tam Lin and Celia; they genuinely cared for Matt and tried to help him as much as they could. Tom was a creepy little psychopath that I absolutely loved to hate. I wavered between liking Maria and wanting to slap her. She was kind to Matt and was largely responsible for rescuing him from his initial circumstances. But she kept defending Tom and would never believe what Matt told her about him. Those are the times I wanted to slap her. Seriously, girl?! Tom has always been cruel to you and you don't believe that he tried to kill your dog?! If I were her, I wouldn't have for one moment been upset when Matt tried to get back at him. It's not like Matt ever did anything truly mean to him anyway.

The Romance: Matt develops a crush on Maria, but it's mostly in the background and doesn't take up any time at all.

Plot: Between America and Mexico, a new country as sprung up: Opium. Controlled by drug lords, it's essentially a city-state that has promised to control the immigrant problem for both borders if the two nations allow them to exist and sell drugs in other countries. One drug lord, El Patron, has the entire kingdom in his pocket. But he's dying. Matteo Alacran is El Patron's clone, developed in a cow and raised in secret. Clones, by law, have to have their minds destroyed, but El Patron is rich enough to protect his intact. Treated like less than an animal, then given the finest education he could ask for, Matt learns the kindness and cruelty of the world, all while painfully aware that he isn't human. But secrets surround Matt at the Alacran Estate. And while he might be protected by El Patron; treated like El Patron's favorite, not everything is as it seems. This is one of those plots that doesn't necessarily proceed very quickly - in fact, the beginning is rather slow - but it's a plot that has a lot to say. Beneath all of the futuristic and clone stuff, lots of interesting issues and ideas are discussed. What makes something human, the drug industry, political collapse, morality, socialism, and many other topics. Surprisingly, it's all done in a non-preachy manner and provokes a lot of thought. There is something unsettling about the world Matt lives in, and while I enjoyed exploring it, I also kind of felt queasy the entire time. The world building isn't as broad as it could have been, but we are seeing it all through Matt's eyes - someone who has been isolated from it all - so it makes sense. The plot twist, of course, is easy to guess; it's a story about clones, after all. We all know what clones are created for. But the twist is only part of the story, and the book still has a lot to say even after that climax.

Believability: Not applicable.

Writing Style: Third person, past tense. It was fine; nothing special, nothing bad.

Content: None.

Conclusion: The ending itself felt a teeny tiny bit too tidy. At the same time, it also really fit the storyline. After everything Matt goes through, you really don't want him to have to go through anything more. And a showdown simply wasn't in keeping with the book's style. The House of the Scorpion was a very interesting read. A little slow at times, a definitely weird, it provoked a lot of thought and would be good for any book club.

Recommended Audience: Girl-and-guy read, fifteen-and-up, fans of clone stories.

Others in the Matteo Alacran Series:

1)The House of the Scorpion
2)The Lord of Opium

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