Review: The Scorpion Rules

Reasons for Inclusion: (Note: Due to the futuristic setting and new national borders, ethnicities don’t exactly match up to modern-day labels)
Da-Xia is from a Chinese/Central Asian empire, Thandi is from an African union, Elián (and most of North America) is indeterminately brown-skinned. Grego and Atta are a same-sex couple, Greta is possibly bi/pan. Eventual F/F pairing.
 

Publisher’s Summary: A world battered by climate shift and war turns to an ancient method of keeping peace: the exchange of hostages. The Children of Peace – sons and daughters of kings and presidents and generals – are raised together in small, isolated schools called Preceptures. There, they learn history and political theory, and are taught to gracefully accept what may well be their fate: to die if their countries declare war.

Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan-Polar Confederation, is the pride of the North American Prefecture. Learned and disciplined, Greta is proud of her role in keeping the global peace, even though, with her country controlling two-thirds of the world’s most war-worthy resource — water — she has little chance of reaching adulthood alive.

Enter Elián Palnik, the Prefecture’s newest hostage and biggest problem. Greta’s world begins to tilt the moment she sees Elián dragged into the school in chains. The Prefecture’s insidious surveillance, its small punishments and rewards, can make no dent in Elián, who is not interested in dignity and tradition, and doesn’t even accept the right of the UN to keep hostages.

What will happen to Elián and Greta as their two nations inch closer to war?

My Review:
(5/5 stars)
 
“Did you know, the man who invented the atomic bomb once said that keeping peace through deterrence was like keeping two scorpions in one bottle? You can picture that, right? They know they can’t sting without getting stung, can’t kill without getting killed. You’d think that would stop them. But it doesn’t.”
The Scorpion Rules is a futuristic science fiction story drawing on deep roots in politics and philosophy to go far beyond anything that could be called standard YA-fic conventions.
The future leaders of the world, gathered as collateral against future wars, live their lives learning history from robot teachers, tending gardens, and raising goats (a lot of goats!) all in constant anticipation of the day Talis’s Swan Riders will arrive to announce their deaths as their nations inevitably go to war over dwindling water supplies. The story opens with one such death. And then, even while more conflict looms, the newest hostage, Elián, refuses to behave, continuing to rebel in small and large ways despite the torture this earns him.
“‘Hi, I’m Spartacus, and I’m here to lead you in a slave revolt against an unjust syst—’ The Proctor touched his belly and he went down screaming.”
The relationships that emerge from this situation are not at all the ones you would expect. To go any further would be to give spoilers, but it’s not Elián who Greta falls in love with, though he does become very important to her.
“I had my sexuality filed under ‘further research is needed’ “
The narration seamlessly moves between practical concerns and poetic reflection. The first section seems overly concerned with goats at times, but that becomes important later on. The story masterfully balances worldbuilding, daily life, relationships, political intrigues, and the effects of all this on the characters.
The architect of this world, Talis, is terrifying, mostly because he knows exactly what he is. He knows he’s the evil robotic overlord, that nobody will agree with his needs-of-the-many calculus or horrific methods. He buries all that in a sense of humor and obviously false affability, never hiding what he can do.
“AIs have this built-in tendency to take over the world. Did we learn nothing from The Terminator, people? Did we learn nothing from HAL?”
He isn’t the only monster. Humans can be just as heartless and brutal in getting what they want, as the hostages learn when Elián’s nation invades their base.
This book is thought-provoking, brutal, and emotional, all leading up to an absolutely unexpected conclusion.
 (ARC received from Netgalley)
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