Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Review - House of the Scorpion

The House of the Scorpion I picked this book up blind at the recommendation of my son. The brief description I'd been given didn't provide much insight into what I should expect. Having recently read Bless Me, Ultima by Anaya, I was expecting something along similar lines. What I found was both strikingly different and oddly similar.


Our main character, Matt Alacran, is a clone (something I didn't know before reading, but it's introduced early on, so I'm not really spoiling anything by saying that). He's a clone of "El Patron", drug lord and 'president' of the country called Opium. Matt is raised without knowledge of his heritage or even what's going on outside the little home in which he lives. As he ventures outside and begins to learn more, he finds himself thrown into a world of persecution and discrimination because of his "less than human" status.

Matt is a lovable character on a search for his own sense of identity and purpose. He is stuck in the middle of a difficult world and he spends a lot of effort trying to understand it. It's explained to him that even though he genetically comes from such an evil person, he has the choice and the opportunity to be good and to make the most of his life. This argument is at the heart of the book.

Celia and Tam Lin are proxy caregivers to Matt through the novel and they provide the positive influences in his life that he so desperately needs. Without their help, he would surely wallow his days away in self-despair or being violently discriminated against by other members of the staff. As we learn their histories, particularly that of Tam Lin, we're given more opportunities to think deeply on the ideas of the inherent nature of people and what makes a person good or evil.

El Patron's character is intriguing in that we're time and again given indication as to just how evil he is and how much wrong he's doing in the world. However, as we're told that from the beginning, we find ourselves closely relating to Matt and wondering if perhaps El Patron truly has some good in him. El Patron always seems to shower Matt with protection, gifts and affection (in his own strange ways). Still, El Patron encourages Matt's more devious and naughty ways rather than encouraging him to be a virtuous child. As events turn for the worse, it's not a large surprise to see El Patron become as dark as he does. Still, I found myself hoping with Matt that El Patron may possibly still have some good nature to him.

Maria is the other major character in the book worth mentioning. She is first introduced as a child of about Matt's age. When its discovered that he's a clone, she is the only one still willing to provide any compassion to him. As she grows older, we find her to be an overly loving and compassionate character caring not only for Matt's well being but also for all others who are oppressed or struggling for one reason or another.


The setting of the story was very intriguing. We're sometime in the future in a land called "Opium" that exists between the United States and the Aztlan (formerly known as Mexico). From my Spanish studies, I recognized the name Aztlan as the ancient name for the land of Mexico...actually it included many of the western United States as well. While the author doesn't explicitly define the dimensions and boundaries of each country, I wondered a time or two at the current size and layout of each country.

The author presents a strange and frightening future where both the American and the Mexican (Aztlanian) governments have come to a sort of truce with the drug lords. The drug lords have been given a stretch of land between the two nations and given full sovereignty to produce drugs provided they don't sell to either US or Aztlan. The drug lords are also given power to capture illegal immigrants trying to cross the border. It is these captured illegals that El Patron (and other drug lords) use as slaves to farm their land. Towards the end of the book, we learn that there are refugees traveling in both directions...that is from Mexico to US as well as from US to Mexico. Apparently in this future, neither country is in ideal shape and "the grass is always greener."

The ingenuity of the author continues in her presentation of mind control chips implanted in the captured slaves. The slaves are compelled by means of these chips to serve diligently with unquestioning obedience...even to their own physical demise. This theme is later presented when Matt encounters the world outside Opium and finds that in Aztlan the people find the mind-control devices repulsive and yet some people force others into zombie-like obedience.

The book moved along at a solid pace, quickly progressing through the years of young Matt's life. Because of the environment he lived in, it was fully believable for a year or more to pass without much change. Thus the author was able to move forward through time quickly without having to slowly drudge through menial details of Matt's maturation.


This book leaves the reader with much to think on.

The first theme I found crossing my mind was the argument of Nature versus Nurture. Would the clone of an evil, dictatorial drug lord necessarily become evil himself? Or could he be turned into a loving, caring person with the right upbringing? The argument seemed to fall with the conclusion that proper and adequate child raising practices could suppress any inborn tendencies.

There were a few opportunities where Matt found himself behaving the same as El Patron...and enjoying it. He loved the power and the sense of control. He loved the respect he was given and found it very easy to be strong. As he was given lessons from Celia, Tam Lin, and Maria, he began to realize the importance of treating others well and of trying to show kindness and equality. While Matt is in Aztlan, he stands firm in his ideals and uses his powerful presence to take a stand. He could easily have turned this power further to his advantage and made himself an 'El Patron' figure in his own right. But Matt learned the value of kindness and the importance of balancing justice with mercy.

That exploration of right versus wrong is the second strong theme I noticed in the book. For the first half of the book, we are in the heart of Opium with its lavishly decorated mansion and its wonderful food. Despite the luxuries of evil, Matt and other characters find distress in the suffering of the slaves. As the book progresses, we also get small commentaries on the vile nature of drug use and drug trafficking.

Even within this pit of vices, there are good natured characters. Matt learns that bad people can do good things and good people can do bad things. He also comes to a realization that even if a person has done bad things in the past, they can and should be forgiven and able to make a reconciliation for their actions. This particular theme is lived through the character of Tam Lin, the bodyguard assigned to protect Matt. Tam Lin provides love and compassion for Matt, and yet he has a dark past. In the last few chapters of the book, it's evident that Matt feels Tam Lin is a good person despite his past and that he should be forgiven.


Ok...I realized this "review" is turning more into a large scale book-report. To bring it to a conclusion, I would just say that this book is a well structured adventure tale following a young boy in difficult circumstances. The plot is intriguing and gives the reader a lot to think about concerning the nature of a person and considering how we should treat our fellow man.

I found the language very accessible and entertaining. The descriptions were vivid and engaging. There was some minimal swearing which is a turn off for me to hand this to young children (I'm a little concerned at the swearing in the book my 8 year old read), but it's (sadly) a natural part of the world and I suspect it's not more pervasive than anything he hears at school.

Overall, I found this book a great read and recommend it.


4 stars

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