Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The House Of the Scorpion

by Nancy Farmer

In a future where a wide swath between Mexico and the US is a recognized fiefdom known as Opium ruled by opium warlords and cultivated by lobotomized “eedjit” zombies, a young boy named Matt lives on the compound of a feared drug lord named El Patron.  Early on, he learns that he is a clone of the ancient, decrepit kingpin himself.  Aside from a friendly bodyguard and the woman who raised him, he’s treated with scorn and disgust by most of the family and employees, although El Patron orders everyone to act normally around him.  Gradually, Matt realized why El Patron needs a clone, and it’s not because he wants an heir.  Making his escape, he spends some time in a pseudo-socialist Mexican orphanage workhouse before finding his childhood friend, and some measure of meaning in his life.

This is an interesting and original book; Matt’s slow realization as he learns what the reader already assumed gives it a chilling suspense, and the pacing is good.  I thought the quality fell a bit in the Mexico section; Farmer seems to have been intent on critiquing the hypocrisy of an Orwellian socialism, which is not only attacking a strawman, but is rather out of place compared to the overall tone of the book.  Worse, the main resolution of the book happens off-scene, and Matt is simply told of the fate of everyone he knew at the hacienda in Drugland.   It’s a bit of dramatic let-down, though it sets things up nicely for a sequel. 

four stars

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


by Cornelia Funke
translated by Althea Bell

Meggie and her bookbinder father live alone in a house crammed with books and the joy of reading.  When a mysterious visitor named Dustfinger arrives, calling Meggie’s father “Silvertongue,” Mo acts secretive and alarmed.  They take a trip to the house of a relative, Elinor, who is just as book mad as they are.  There, however, they are set upon by kidnappers who want a specific book, and Mo himself.  When they’re captured, Mo reveals his terrible secret.  When he reads aloud from books, he brings the characters to life, literally. Ten years previously, he read so lyrically from the book Inkheart that a pair of the book’s villains appeared in our world, while his wife was spirited into the book!  With some help from Dustfinger, who is by no means an ally but wholly self-interested, the three try desperately to work out a plan that will end the villain Capricorn’s reign of terror as well as get his wife back – a plan that depends on help from Inkheart’s own author.

I was not bowled over by this book.  It’s an interesting premise, even if it has been done before, but the book is overlong at 540 pages or so.  The characters are flat (the villains uninterestingly and thoroughly villainous; Meggie and her father are selfless and beatific), as well as obtuse, which I found irksome.  It’s absurd to think after you’ve been kidnapped from your own home by a mad, violent, powerful man who wants something from you, and then escaped, that you can simply meander back to that home with your ordeal over.  It’s downright stupid to think that situation can be resolved by talking. Some of the conceits of the plot are also a bit ridiculous: a normal, illiterate man from a magical but medieval world appearing here with nothing but the clothes on his back, somehow rising to become a crime lord?  And even established as he is in the story, Capricorn is the sort of tyrant who could be dealt with by two men with handguns; hardly an indefatigable enemy.  Finally, once the main conflict has been established, the book drags; the plot repeats itself and Funke takes a dreadfully long time to get to the real point of Capricorn’s plan, to unleash a murderous magical creature on this world.  For all that it is a love letter to classic children’s literature (Tinkerbell is appropriated as a minor character, as is a figure from The Thousand and One Nights), I found it more boring than engrossing.  I’d rather reread E. Nesbitt.

three stars