This duology left me with very mixed feelings. So much of the conceptualization was really intriguing, yet somehow the story didn’t grab me the way I wanted it to. While I wanted to see how things came together, in the end some of the solutions were just smidge too simplistic for my taste. These are considered children’s books, but I would definitely put them in the YA category, despite the fact that the main character is only 14.
It’s really hard to talk about these books without divulging too much about what happens. But basically the story starts with Matteo, a little boy who is actually a clone. He was made from an old man known as El Patrón, who rules a country whose entire purpose is to grow opium. Matt is being raised by Celia, who loves him, but within the first few chapters Matt ends up at the main house where he discovers that he is not a regular little boy as he supposed, but a clone – and almost everyone considers him a monster, subhuman.
These books delve a great deal into what makes us human, and when we become human. While much of the discussion is about clones, and another “subhuman” group, the eejits, they are questions that can easily apply to many marginalized groups in today’s society – I found myself regularly marveling at how the statements concerning clones made by the majority of Opium’s population echoed the justifications put forth by pro-abortion advocates today – things like “they can’t really feel pain” or “I decided to create it so I can decide to terminate it” or “it doesn’t really understand what’s happening, so it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s treated well.”
In the first book, Farmer purposely keeps the reader in the dark about a lot of things – sometimes a bit too much, I felt. However, if you flip open the cover of the second book, you’ll find the answers to many questions in the first few pages – maps and a chronology of events. These were very helpful by the time I was about halfway through the first book.
All in all, I enjoyed the story in The House of the Scorpion. It was intense and gritty, yet did so in a way that was completely appropriate for younger (I would say 11+) readers. Basically, if a reader is old enough to understand the content, there isn’t anything they shouldn’t read. Some of it is disturbing, but never grotesquely so. Matt is a well-drawn and engaging character. Despite the fact that the first few chapters cover the first 13 years of Matt’s life, the story didn’t feel rushed or like an info-dump. Farmer’s pacing is excellent, giving enough information to keep the story going. So much of the world-building is discovered through Matt’s eyes (although third person), which was done very well.
However, the ending felt strangely abrupt. Matt goes through so much and has so many enemies within the house – and then the end. It felt like a cop-out in some ways. Not completely dissatisfying, but it almost felt like Farmer wanted a bridge so that she could roll into a second book. Ending the first book in a more natural way wouldn’t have led into the second book that she wanted to write, so the first book gets a bit of a ??! ending.
The Lord of Opium picks up Matt’s story the day after the first book ends. In this book, Matt has a lot more difficult decisions, plus he’s battling with a lot of emotions and the aftermath from the ending of the first book. Farmer brings up a lot more questions about humanity, conservation, drugs, cloning, immortality, slavery, immigration, whether the ends justifies the means, and whether or not we choose our own paths or if they are chosen for us. These topics are handled very deftly. I never really felt like she was preaching at me, yet I found myself pondering a lot of the questions she had raised. Despite the fact that my life is nothing like Matt’s, I still somehow really related to him as a character, and felt like a lot of the dilemmas he faced were once that I could understand. To me, that’s a sign of solid writing.
Because these are children’s books, we had a happy ending. I felt like it was a bit of a stretch, but I like happy endings, too, so I was willing to roll with it. I actually would be totally into another book about Matt to see where his dreams take him next. All in all, I would go with 3/5 for both books, but a really high 3, like a 3.8, and recommended.
A few spoiler-filled ?!?!? moments below the break – don’t read them until you’ve read the books! But if you have read the books, I’d love to hear your opinions!
NB: These books were first brought to my attention by a great review of The House of the Scorpion over on Paper Breathers. Thanks, Sophie!
Biggest question and this is a SERIOUSLY BIG SPOILER: We find out that Matt’s entire purpose for being created was so that his heart could be harvested and transplanted into El Patrón. This is actually awesome – this book really delves in the concept of cloning, and what this means for us as people. Is it ethical to create a clone just you can harvest its organs later? In the book, most clones are grown inside of a cow’s uterus, so that way society glosses over the humanity aspect of a clone and considers them to be “livestock” because they weren’t born – they were harvested from a cow. In the majority of instances, when a clone is “harvested,” it is given a shot to destroy the baby’s ability to mentally develop beyond a certain point (presumably to make them indifferent towards their fate and to continue to perpetrate the concept that they are subhuman). However, El Patrón likes his clones to grow up intelligent and educated.
Anyway, we basically come to find out that Matt is the ninth clone/heart donor for El Patrón, which was a great twist, but also left me feeling very confused because El Patrón is only (!) 146. If he’s already burned through eight other hearts, he’s only getting an average of a little over 18 years out of each heart… which left me wondering if he had some kind of heart issues beyond just getting old?? And also left me worried that even if Matt survived all the chaos of his life, he wouldn’t make it to his 19th birthday because he was going to kick over from heart failure! It just seemed like either El Patrón should have gone through fewer clones at this point, or he should have been older.
There were other minor issues that left me feeling a little disoriented. The discovery of another El Patrón clone, created after Matt, seemed strange – why wasn’t this clone being raised the same way that Matt was?
The whole ending of the first book seemed like a serious stretch to me. I was willing to buy that El Patrón would kill everyone off at his own funeral, but it made Matt’s return just seem too easy. He literally just strolls in and is in charge by default – in fact, everyone is grateful to have him back/have a leader!
The second book seemed more hurried than the first book, and there were a lot of coincidences that had to occur in order to make the story work. Matt always seems to meet the exact right person at the exact right time. And in the end, the solution to all of his problems involves the fact that he just happened to throw a switch when he happened to be in a room?? That seemed too easy.
Also, why do we still have a United States, but Mexico has changed its name to Aztlán? That seemed arbitrarily confusing.
Still, on the whole, these books were thoroughly engaging and did a great job bringing up and discussing various issues without delving into the polemic. Overall, recommended.