Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

  • ISBN-10: 1481442716 - Hardcover $17
  • Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (September 22, 2015), 384 pages.
  • Review copy courtesy of the publisher (BEA promotion).

The blurb:
Greta is a duchess and crown princess -- and a hostage to peace.  This is how the game is played, if you want to rule, you must give one of your children as a hostage. And you must keep the peace; start a war and your hostage dies.

Greta will be free if she can survive until her eighteenth birthday.  Until then she is prepared to die with dignity, if she must.  But everything changes when a new hostage arrives, a boy who refuses to play by the rules, a boy who defies everything Greta has ever been taught.  A boy who opens Greta's eyes to the brutality of the system they live under -- and to her own power.

With her nation on the verge of war, Greta becomes a target in a new kind of game.  A game that will end up killing her -- unless she can find a way to break all the rules.


We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life. -J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Scientific Director of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb 
The quote above marks the beginning of The Scorpion Rules and is the inspiration for its title.

The idea of holding children hostage to their parents' good behavior in order to prevent war or revolution is not new -- Erin Bow has created a world where the different nations have grown accustomed to the idea that a princess or prince can be sacrificed.  The Children of Peace are raised and educated together in the Preceptures where they learn to farm and live off of what they're able to produce from the land.   The old national, political and geographic boundaries have been replaced with new ones, even the Earth's surface has changed dramatically.  We decipher the changes from the hostages that we encounter:

Gregori Kalvelis ("Grego"), son of the one of the grand dukes of the Baltic Alliance;
Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy, a 7th generation hostage and future ruler of a superpower;
Li Da-Xia,  Daughter  of the Heavenly Throne, the Beloved of the Mountains, the Pure Soul of Snow, a goddess in the Mountain Glacial States and most of Central Asia;
Thandi, heir to one of the great thrones of Africa;
Sidney,  son of the governor of Mississippi Delta Confederacy; and the more mysterious Children of the Peace Han and Atta.

The world is fascinated by these princes and princesses, but it's only those who are familiar with the Preceptures who know how the children are taught to work together, work hard and to sacrifice. Their teachers are carefully selected to be neutral and free from biases or corruption - they're different forms of Artificial Intelligence.  The Abbot who is in charge of the Precepture and the Children's eduction had been human once and more than the others he is able to sympathize and give the children balance in their lives.  They follow the Utterances, which is a book of quotations from the AI which has been assembled like a holy text; as a Child of Peace, it's critically important to know the Utterances. 

While the Children form close friendships and alliances, they never forget the reason for their being held at the Precepture.  Certainly, the many robots that listen and punish for dangerous behavior and talk are quick to remind them of their lack of power and of their obligations as Children of Peace.

Greta and her cohorts take instruction well and they prove strong despite the pressures that they face. It's Greta's stoicism (and her fondness for Marcus Aurelius) that stand out.  She's willing to accept that the growing political disputes for water make her country a likely target and put her life at risk, but she responds with calm and by keeping the Precepture running efficiently.  Though she's not one of the more vocal Children, she's the center of the group.  Her friendship with Li Da-Xia is more than a bond of princesses who have shared the same space for years, they have their own shortcuts to remind themselves and each other of the roles that they must play and their friendship gives you hope that with leaders who see each other like sisters there can be little chance of war.  "A hostage, yes. But a princess, a duchess.  The daughter of a queen."  The ties that the children can make one hope that in this fictional future war will be displaced, but The Scorpion Rules isn't so idealistic that one forgets that war comes from conflicting interests which can override the strength of diplomacy and friendship.  Overall, an imaginative and deeply satisfying read.

About the Author:
Erin Bow is a physicist turned poet turned children's novelist -- and she's won major awards in all three roles.  She's the author of Plain Kate, which received two starred reviews and was a YALSA Best Book of the Year, and Sorrow's Knot, which received five starred reviews and was a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year.  Visit her at

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