Sorry about the constant crushing surveillance and all that. But you’re supposed to be learning to rule the world, not plotting to take it over. That job is decidedly taken.
—Holy Utterances of Talis
Four hundred years ago, the tensions in our world—environmental and then political—reached a breaking point, and everything went to hell. Talis, an AI tasked by the UN to study and implement conflict abatement, did his job—by hacking into the global computer network, gaining control of all satellites and weaponry, and using them to take over the world.
He got our attention by blowing up cities. And he kept blowing up cities until we’d stopped fighting. Humans being humans, it took the utter destruction of seven cities before we realized what was happening. Once we were listening, Talis laid out the new world order: Going forward, to keep the peace, every world leader would be required to send one of his or her children to Talis as hostage—and if that country engaged in war, that child’s life would be forfeit.
For four centuries, Talis’ system has mostly worked—some children have been sacrificed, to be sure, but the world has stayed mostly stable. But is stability established through fear ever truly stable?
Welcome to the world of Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules.
This is one that has me wanting to simply say, IT’S GOOD, READ IT. I read it in a single sitting, I was riveted by the characterization and the prose and the ideas and the heart, I laughed out loud, and yes, I cried. (Not Plain Kate–levels of crying, but there were tears nonetheless.)
In addition to its general, all-around excellence, here are a few facets that really, really stood out for me:
Worldbuilding. It’s a world within a world within a world. First, there’s the Precepture, a mostly tech-free, cloistered farm where the Children of Peace live and work. Then, there are all of their home countries, which they visit at least three times a year—after all, a hostage isn’t much of a hostage if no one cares about her, right? And then, there is the world as a whole—the political stage, as well as Talis’ domain.
The Precepture is both claustrophobic and enormous—the Children of Peace never have true privacy, and they can’t stray far from the compound—but it’s also in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by miles and miles and miles of empty prairie. Bow does a lovely job of creating what seems like a small, entirely enclosed world…and then slowly peeling back the edges, going from micro to macro and back again.
Humanity. The Abbot, who runs the Precepture, is almost more of a parental figure to our heroine than her mother is—he’s an AI, like Talis, but he’s capable of affection and even of sacrifice. So, through him—and through Talis, who yes, does make an appearance—Bow raises that age-old question: what does it really mean to be human?
Love. Platonic love, romantic love, love for a child, love for a hero, love for a mentor, love for a friend. So many stories and connections, and all effective and honest and real—even those that are only expressed in a few lines. Double points to Bow for subverting the love triangle trope—although there are two characters who love Greta, they don’t vie for her, fight over her, demand that she choose, treat her as a prize to be won. They’re friends, they’re allies, they care about each other as well as about her—and while Greta ultimately realizes that she’s in love with Princess Da-Xia, that doesn’t mean that she has any less room in her heart for Elián.
Humor. Most of the characters have their moments—Elián is especially prone to using humor as a form of defiance—but Talis himself wins the day in this department, occasionally even channeling a bit of a Douglas Adams–ian feel:
I didn’t actually mean for the hostage thing to create a whole bunch of hereditary monarchies, saith the Utterances. But, you know, whatever. Murdering princesses. I guess I can work with that.
Horrifying? Sure. But, at moments, also wonderfully funny—I mean, the beautiful, self-aware irony of an AI who takes over the world WHILE QUOTING THE BORG? I swoon.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.