Thursday, August 18, 2011

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

In which a boy grows up to discover his purpose and sinister destiny in a futuristic, ruined North America.

This book review contains spoilers because it's not something I can highly recommend, and I prefer to discuss plot details.

The House of the Scorpion takes place at some point in the future when a new country specializing in opium production exists between America and Mexico. In it, the most powerful drug lord ever, El Patron, has a vast estate and is doing his best to live forever.

The point of view character is Matt. The story is told entirely through his perspective (although there are a few lines from outside his perspective here and there that just seemed like sloppy writing...) and he starts out as a small child and understands things as a small child might. The craziness of the setting is gradually exposed as he understands it. Usually the reader will catch on to things slightly faster than Matt.

In the setting people are cloned, and others are given brain implants to make them as stupid as possible while still functioning in narrow roles. As Matt grows up in the secluded plantation of El Patron it becomes clear that everyone is superrich or essentially a slave of the superrich. Matt discovers early in the story that he is a clone of El Patron, although he doesn't figure out his purpose until quite far in. In the setting clones are seen as sub-human so Matt is treated as a disgusting but smart animal by many people he encounters.

Most of the book is devoted to Matt slowly figuring out the setting and his complicated relationship to it. It's generally enjoyable but not that rewarding to read. Matt is not a very compelling character, and most of the others are both flat and despicable. At some point the setting changes as Matt leaves the plantation. He goes south to what used to be Mexico, and ends up in a setting with an economy only marginally more realistic and nuanced than that of Atlas Shrugged. It's BAD. It's like Farmer felt like she ran out of subtlety in the first half of the story (she didn't) and decided to hit the reader with an Authoritarianism-Sucks-Stick. The book really degenerates in the second half of the book. The exposition of the setting and the culture of clones is the interesting part, leaving nothing good for the second half of the book.

And the ending. The ending was abrupt, but comprehensive. Maybe it's normal for young adult books to end in a steaming pile of rainbows and sugar and happy faces and kittens, but it seemed like a cop out to me. In a few pages the entire story was resolved in the most generic everyone-is-happy-now ways possible.

Another weird thing about this book was how dark it was. I read online that it was recommended for ages ten and up, but I would so not be excited about my ten year old niece reading this book! There are some really horrifying aspects of the story. I have a delightful ability to give myself nausea and dizziness by panicking, and certain scenes brought me to that point. A girl's pet dog is in constant peril, as is Matt. At one point it is implied that a cat is being tortured, and I got dizzy. There didn't turn out to be a cat, but the resolution of that scene was PLENTY disturbing. There are ideas that would profoundly disturb a young adult reader, I would think. It's a really cruel and violent setting, and I fail to see how it's something kids would enjoy. I am not a proponent of censorship, but parents choosing to protect their own kids from images of kids being harvested for organs is fine by me!

So I don't think this book is worth reading. Parts were enjoyable, and the beginning showed promise, but it ultimately failed to be worthwhile. I recommend you watch the movie The Island and read The Hunger Games instead. I just can't see what value this book has to offer. I would rate it a 2 except that I enjoyed reading parts in the first half.


  1. Is this the same Nancy Farmer who wrote The Ear, The Eye and The Arm? I read that book in fifth or sixth grade, and remember it being pretty bleak, but a good read.

  2. I checked online. It is the same author! Weird. Maybe twisted stories in really unbalanced future societies are her favorite thing to write about.

  3. Oh hey, she also wrote "A Girl Named Disaster". I definitely read that one too. Amazon recommends it for ages 8 and up, but I seem to recall that the book referenced child slaves, genital mutilation in Africa, and death spirits.

  4. That's so weird! How is it normal for kids to be reading about horrifying things like that??


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