The House of Scorpions by Nancy Farmer


As the book begins, Matteo Alacran lives alone with his “mother” in their cottage; this is clearly part of a substantial estate, but as Matteo remains almost exclusively in the house during his early years, we know little of this. There are only hints that Celia is working in a large house as cook. Two of the children of the ‘manor house’ discover him one day, and thus is his presence revealed to the family. Or rather, the specifics of his upbringing.

The “estancia” is revealed to be part of a country run by drug lords, who control massive estates of opium poppies. These fields are worked by what Matteo calls “eejits”: human beings with an implant in their brains that leaves them no free will whatsoever–they do whatever they were last told to do until they’re told to do something else. Work. Drink. Rest. Eat. It doesn’t matter. Cloning entire human beings is possible, if you’ve got the money; the law requires the clone be rendered incapable of cognition. El Patron, however, has the money and the influence to get away with NOT doing this, and this is how Matteo came to be in the household.

Matt (and the reader, presumably) is appalled to discover that he is a clone of “El Patron”, the 140-year-old (literally) paterfamilias of “Opium”, a country cum family business raising and selling opium to the drug cartels in the future equivalent of the United States…and clones are loathed as subhumans by the naturally born in this future world. The woman whom he considers his mother is in fact the caretaker assigned by El Patron, his genetic parent, to raise him in isolation until he is of an age to be useful to El Patron, though it’s not clear whether Matt is merely a reservoir of spare organs, as other clones are, or is destined for more. Matt struggles to fit in this alien world, learning what he can of its society while gaining an education as we’d consider such today; he retains the emotional maternal attachment to Celia while gaining a similar paternal attachment to Tam Lin, one of El Patron’s bodyguards, and a sibling attachment to Maria, daughter of the household.

As familial resistance increases against the presence of a clone who is not merely an organ replacement but rather an heir to the family business, Matt escapes successfully…so he thinks. Instead he lands in the territory of child labor factories; they are ostensibly orphanages caring for the offspring of parents who’ve disappeared into the “Opium” territories, but are rather yet another form of forced-labor institution, relying this time on children too young to understand how to resist rather than adults artificially controlled. Matt eventually returns to Opium, relying on the fact that as he is genetically identical to the ostensible ruler of this estancia, the computers controlling the community will not be able to distinguish between the two and therefore repulse Matt as an intruder.

This is a future (and possibly alternate history) world, in which Mexico and the United States have split off a strip between them, to slow the foot traffic between the countries. Ruthless drug lords do what they consider necessary to raise and market their crops.

Farmer does touch on several topics of potential interest to readers: drug smuggling, international relationships, Hispanic culture, prejudice and justification thereby, child labor. The book spends as much time on developing these issues in the science fiction melieu as it does on plot and character development; I’d say this book might be better for middle grade kids who like the science more than the relationships in fantasy/science fiction. Unfortunately, she touches on so many different issues that I’m left feeling she might have been better off splitting the book into two parts–Matt’s life on the estancia and that after he’s fled. The two stories might allow a better development of the various agendas and sub-plots.

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