The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow
The Scorpion Rules may appear to be yet another YA book about a post-catastrophe future where life is entirely different, constantly dangerous, and always delicately perched on the brink of disaster. However, this one is extremely smartly written with plenty of thoughtful extras and creative areas of focus; making it unique, surprising, and memorable.

The story takes place after several centuries of World Wars have fragmented the Earth into many new and variously sized territories. The UN has finally ended all the fighting and achieved a sort of peace by putting an artificial intelligence named Talis in charge of determining how to stop all conflict. Talis did this by making himself lord of the universe, and by taking control of a satellite linked global weapon system. He then used the weapon to destroy several major cities, thereby completely intimidating the world and proving his unstoppable power. Now the ruthless AI maintains order by having the child of every major leader on the planet be held hostage as a Prisoner of Peace. They are kept in these monastery-like strongholds around the world. Thus, if a territory or confederation declares war on another, that leader’s child is executed.

It is in one of these hostage centers, called Preceptures, where the book’s action occurs. Princess Greta, the main character, is only 16 months from her 18th birthday, which is significant because if she makes it until then, she’d be released back to her confederation to live as royalty and await her turn to be Queen. Unfortunately, a small neighboring territory that’s desperate for water attacks her homeland AND makes a daring attempt to invade the Precepture to rescue a boy named Elian, who is their Prisoner of Peace. This bold move puts Greta, Elian, and her small, tight group of hostage friends in grave danger because Talis’s response is to take over the body of one of his Swan Riders (an elite army of enforcers), and come down to the scene himself to squash the rebellion and punish the offenders.

Before writing this, I checked a few Amazon reviews to find out what others are saying about The Scorpion Rules because it’s such a different book from what I expected. And WOW--this book is truly polarizing. I can’t think of a time recently where I’ve read such diverse 1 star and 5 star reviews. If readers miss out on or are not interested in the subtle intricacies of the book, they HATE it. When readers key in on the slow but steady build-up of action, and enjoy the different layers Mrs. Bow decided to focus on, they LOVE it. I didn’t get all the way to ‘loved it’, but I definitely enjoyed this great book. And I’ve now realized this is because I truly appreciated the excellent writing and admired the author for going in new directions with her novel.

For much of the first third or maybe close to half of it, we readers just live with the hostages at their Precepture (the monastery-like place where the Prisoners of Peace are kept). There is rising tension, but this is mostly in the background. We learn how they grow all the fruits and vegetables they need, and how they manage this flock of goats in order to produce milk and cheese. This is one of the first dividing points in the book. Man, some people HATED those poor, unfortunate goats. I didn’t get hung up on them. In fact, I thought the details on the goats were interesting because Mrs. Bow clearly either already knew all about them or did extensive research on goat farming because you can easily tell you are reading actual facts written by a well-informed person. And it’s not like there’s just chapter upon chapter purely devoted to goat herding, farming, and mating. While going about their daily farming and goat management duties at the Precepture, Greta and the other characters are interacting with one another, revealing key points of the story, and telling small bits of their own histories. I found it all to be a nice, subtle, effective way to move the novel along while also drawing us in and immersing us in the hostages’ intriguing lives.

If you can put the goats aside and just enjoy the book, then you’ll appreciate the big change when Elian arrives, the Prisoner of Peace from a small territory that ultimately ends up attacking Greta’s large, super-powerful confederation. We figure this is the love interest and he and Greta are probably going to steal a ship, go on the run, destroy Talis, and save their homelands. Not so fast--Mrs. Bow has some twists for us. There is attraction between Greta and Elian but nothing goes as you assume. In fact, as the intensity of the conflict plays out and they all face life or death situations, Greta also becomes romantically involved with another hostage, a girl. This is another big sticking point with other reviewers who hated the book. And yes, this relationship does somewhat spring out of nowhere and muddles things a bit. But that’s OK - books don’t always have to go as we assume they will. Perhaps in this future world, life is different and love flows more freely. These prisoners have been kept in extremely tight quarters for most of their lives, so naturally they are deeply connected to one another, and in some cases these connections manifest in physical contact. Is it love or what? Who’s to say, since this is a different time and world where Mrs. Bow places her story. For me, it all made sense. Just because a plot doesn’t go where you expect it to, or a story doesn’t unfold how you think it should, this doesn’t make it awful. It makes the book unique. And it’s important to note that the romantic parts are sweet, quiet, and consist of just kissing with anything beyond that only being implied.

As I’ve mentioned a couple times now, it’s Mrs. Bow’s precise, well-informed writing in The Scorpion Rules that really impressed me. I liked all the detail she went to with the hostages’ lives and the farming because this put me there, with them, experiencing their somewhat-free but still confined lives. Greta, Elian and the other characters are nicely done and their struggles are clear. We see and feel the way their lives change. However, they aren’t the real stars of the story. The best part of the book for me was Talis, the supreme AI commander of the world. Here’s this all-powerful, ruthless machine, that should be busy running the world, yet it inhabits a simple human body and puts itself amongst the people for a short time. Just to quell the rebellion and make an example of the offenders. Talis is an aggressive, cool, sensitive, funny, cocky, unpredictable villain who’s actually, really, not that bad of a guy. He’s such a surprise and so much deeper of a character than you’d expect, thanks to Mrs. Bow’s creativity and imagination. If there's ever a movie adaptation of this story, Talis would be a helluva a lot of fun to play!

The final surprising twist occurs in the closing scenes where Greta goes through an astonishing change to save her life, and those of everyone around her. I found the descriptions and phrasing Mrs. Bow used in the last few chapters to be remarkable--fully bringing us into what was going on and showing us the ramifications of Greta’s complicated situation. This is heavy duty science stuff the writer had to get across, but due to her skillful work, we readers can easily see and feel what’s going on. Of course, once I’d finished the book and read the “About the Author” page, I found out why she was able to pull it off so well. Turns out Mrs. Bow is a physicist and a poet, as well as a strong YA book writer. She clearly used all those skills to close out The Scorpion Rules, using her real world expertise to effectively and professionally communicate the most complex scientific parts of her story.

All praise aside, I'm not sure to whom I should recommend this book. Greta and the other hostage characters are mainly in the 16-18 y/o age range, so that’s probably an OK target for readers. It’s not violent, though there are some tough scenes during the rebellion, including one where Greta is tortured in an attempt to get her mother, the Queen of her confederation, to submit to the attacking territory’s demands. Only her hands are in true danger, yet the scene is still intensely suspenseful. There is some blood in various parts of the book, but no gore. And yes, some will find the vague love triangle between Greta, Elian and Xie, Greta's female roommate, to be inappropriate. However it’s really not a focus of the story at all.

All in all, I’d say this one is for older high school or college readers, and mostly best for girls. Those who can enjoy the unique story, appreciate the strong writing, and not get too caught up on whether or not what’s happening is expected or normal. And who won't overly analyze the dang goats! Obvious comparisons would be Hunger Games and Divergent, so fans of those two series would likely enjoy this one, as long as they can handle the quiet, slow-moving build-up and they won’t be offended by the unpredictable romantic passages.

When it’s all said and done, there is quite an interesting (and once again largely unexpected and unusual) cliffhanger at the end of The Scorpion Rules. Thanks to this, and to Mrs. Bow’s strong expertise with her craft, I’ll be looking forward to the sequel and any more books that may come in the series.

Happy Reading!