In the future as described by Erin Bow in her stunning and harrowing new novel, the political becomes very personal. Following the melting of the polar ice caps, large portions of the world have flooded, and the rest is divided into nation-states, each vying for limited resources and potable water. Inevitably, the situation leads to violent clashes between nations, to the point that humanity is in danger of extinction.
In response, the United Nations appoints Talis, an artificial intelligence, to oversee the world and bring the wars to an end. Talis gains control via city-annihilating air strikes launched from the orbital platforms he controls. He then implements a system that requires the heads of each nation to offer up a child as a guarantee of obedience. Gathered in isolated preceptures, these “Children of Peace” are hostages – their parents govern with the knowledge that should they declare war, it will mean death for the children of both the aggressor and the aggrieved.
As The Scorpion Rules opens, Royal High Princess Greta Gustafson Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy (a.k.a. Canada), has been a hostage at Precepture Four – “a refitted monastery and a few acres of permaculture garden, somewhere in Saskatchewan” – for more than a decade. She is 16 months from her 18th birthday, when she will reach the age of majority and be released to her kingdom. She will not be allowed to take the throne, however, until she produces an heir to take her place as a hostage.
Greta and her cohort of inmates from around the world have formed a close-knit group, united by bonds of friendship as well as their shared peril. For Greta, the peril becomes more real when her country’s peace is challenged by a newly formed nation on its border. The Cumberland Alliance (comprised of parts of the U.S., with its capitol in Indianapolis) needs the water held by the Pan Polar Confederacy, and tensions are rising.
When Elián, the hostage from the Cumberland Alliance arrives, things become complicated for the inhabitants of Precepture Four. Elián is rebellious, questioning the rules and strictures that have formed Greta’s entire awareness, lashing out at his destiny, and his role as a sacrificial lamb for his nation’s ambitions. The often-cruel punishment he receives at the “hands” of the robotic proctors and stewards, and the Abbot (an AI with a very human temperament), disturbs the delicate equilibrium of the friends, and raises questions about their own treatment, including the torture some of them have suffered and accepted as part of their “training.”
Elián’s arrival serves as a catalyst, for both the group and the novel, providing discontent and narrative impetus. For Greta, who has always believed it her duty to go her death quietly, should the situation arise, the thought of resistance is a novel one. When the Cumberland Alliance takes bold, surprising action against the very structures of their imposed society itself, the hostages are forced to confront their destinies, asserting their fundamental humanity while the lives of millions of citizens weigh in the balance.
The Scorpion Rules is a bold novel, richly imagined but firmly rooted, not only in its vivid human characters, but also in the philosophical beliefs and conflicts that underpin the world it depicts. As Bow demonstrated in previous novels, including her TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award–winning debut, Plain Kate, she is not only unafraid of challenging her young readers, she seems to view it as part of her mandate. The existential questions presented in her latest work – from what it means to be human to what it means to be a leader to whether the needs of the many truly outweigh the needs of the few – provide boundless opportunities for thought and discussion, while never overshadowing the carefully constructed, endlessly suspenseful narrative. The Scorpion Rules is recommended for readers 14 and up, but it will appeal well beyond the young adult market. If you haven’t read Erin Bow yet, start now.