My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Initial reaction: I’m pretty much at a loss for words at this point in time because I didn’t expect this story to grip me as much as it did. Following Matt’s journey in the course of this book was one full of many ups and downs, tragedies as well as triumphs, and I honestly haven’t come across many MG/YA dystopian novels that were as well done as this.
Nancy Farmer’s “The House of the Scorpion” was a story that took years for me to pick up since its original publication date. Seriously, I think I had every barrier there was trying to pick up this book to read because it was either that I’d had other reading in an academic measure to do over it, or somehow it was always checked out or unavailable at my library or bookstore. Yet on a spontaneous trip to the library one evening when browsing the shelves, when I wasn’t even looking for it, I found it.
Picking it up and reflecting upon it now has me kicking myself mentally for not reading it sooner, because…there are relatively very few novels I can say that blew me away in the reading of them. In the sense of taking my attention, gripping me along for the journey in the eyes of the perspective character, and running the gauntlet all the way until the last page. And there are relatively few narratives that I stop to savor every page because the writing and the characters connect with me so much that I don’t want it to end.
This novel was one of those books for me personally.
The main character of this novel, Matt, has a difficult journey for him from the very get go of things. He’s the only clone to survive in the batch of cells cultivated from a very powerful, but elderly drug lord. The story follows him from birth to the age of 14, and it’s hard not to be taken by his respective development over those years and experiences. He’s a fascinating character to watch in the duration of this novel – for how funny, charming, sincere, and even in the moments where he feels the heaviest sense of pain. The amount of hardship he endures, the hatred put against him for what he is and what he represents, the conflicted feelings he has about his own identity and learning about the world and the family he’s wrapped up within all are quite palpable.
Even for the characters who have a darker presence in this novel, it’s hard not to be charmed or taken into their perspectives and experiences because Farmer creates them so carefully. There were certainly moments when I chuckled at the interactions between characters (Matt and Tam Lin certainly had a few of those moments for me personally – and gah, I loved Tam Lin even with his respective conflicted background), but there’s a darkness to this story as well, and it deals with some very heavy themes that leave an indelible impression with respect to the characters it involves. Things like cloning, slavery, the drug trade, prejudices, the hierarchy and power struggles of family, belief systems, among other matters. There are also quite many characters to keep up with in the spectrum of the story. Yet, Farmer makes the narrative and those characters’ experience flow so smoothly and with ease that it just comes naturally in the duration of the work. Even now, as I’m reflecting on the whole of it, this story, its respective players, conflicts – none of it has left me, and for me that’s a mark of a strong story: when it can immerse you, have a range of emotional resonances that keep you engaged with the work, and leave you thinking about it even after you’ve finished it. This is the kind of story that I expect from strong MG/YA dystopian works – when it can give me a clear picture of the world it takes place in, the characters and the stakes they face, and keep one firmly rooted in those respective conflicts and engagements. To say that I was impressed with this novel is rather an understatement.
Having said that, I’m not going to pretend that this novel didn’t have a few stumbles. The first 2/3 of this story pretty much had me devouring pages to see how Matt would deal with some of the costs, mistakes and hardships he had to face, but there was a time in the last third where the narrative did slow a bit, and I think that was because the story had taken a transitional point from the family that Matt had left behind to the orphanage where he meets the other boys. Having to introduce those particular players in that part of the story was a bit of another beginning that took a bit to find the flow of before it steamrolled to the end. Even with that consideration, I really enjoyed the journey this took me on. I’m certainly looking forward to reading the next chapter in Matt’s journey and I think this is a novel that does so many things remarkably well. It’s one I won’t forget, one I think many MG and YA readers as well as those beyond that audience will enjoy, and it gets my highest recommendation.
Overall score: 5/5