Friday, August 23, 2013

Nancy Farmer's Lord of Opium: A Review Ten Years in the Making

When the winner of the 2003 Newbery Medal was announced, I was deeply disappointed. I had never cared much about book awards before then, except in as much as they were shiny foil stickers that proclaimed certain books to be either acceptable or edifying in the eyes of an adult, but in 2003, I read a book that shook me up and scandalized me in the way that good fiction, and especially good speculative fiction, should try to do.

The House of the Scorpion is a novel by Nancy Farmer that throws readers into a terrifying world where drug cartels have become their own countries or, at the very least, independent states, and where the wealthiest, most powerful, and least scrupulous have acquired a cheat for immortality. By cloning themselves and using the vital parts of their young, fresh copies to replace their own worn flesh, the drug lords do their best to live forever, never mind how many alternate versions of themselves are murdered along the way. The House of the Scorpion is the story of a singular clone named Matt who escapes that particular chopped up and butchered fate.

In 2003, The House of the Scorpion was nominated for the Newbery Medal, but did not win and for the first time, I really, really cared.

The Lord of Opium is Farmer’s sequel to the book that I cared so much about. It is coming out ten years later and I hope that gap in time will not dissuade people from picking it up.
While not as mercilessly gripping as The House of the Scorpion, The Lord of Opium is still a book that I read in one night. It picks up ideas from the first book—the definition and acquisition of humanity, the importance and vulnerability of compassion—and tests them under ever more precarious conditions. Matt is now in a position of power in Opium, a large and wealthy state in the territory claimed by various drug lords that runs between the United States and Aztl├án (an area that corresponds to our Northern Mexico). He is young, inexperienced, and exposed to threats that easily take advantage of the same qualities that make him an appealing hero.

Matt has fears. He does not fully understand who he is or what he is supposed to do. He gets overwhelmed by his sympathies, then backs himself into corners with stubbornness and the petty excitement of a very young person. He tries to make the right choices. He cares. He loves people. He makes mistakes. He finds himself becoming the kind of person who must make choices that can’t be good, that can only be less bad.

The basic structures of the story are familiar. This is a coming of age story, a dystopic science fiction story, a love story, a buddy story. Farmer plays with the expected conventions while still keeping her book running on an efficient engine of tension and suspense. Her writing is clear and easy to fall into. It never stands between the reader and the story and while the setting and characters are vivid, they are vivid in an unfussy and cinematic way so you hardly notice them moving from the page to your mind.

The Lord of Opium is published as a young adult novel and it pays attention to qualities that should be important for all novels, but are sometimes given more vigilance in those that are aimed at young people. It is immensely readable. Things happen. Frightening, upsetting, funny, exciting, good things happen one after another so you are always eager to turn the page to find out what will happen next. It has a hero who is both completely compelling and completely imperfect, and the entire story doesn’t flinch from trying to be something that engages you, that makes you want to step away from the familiarity of the world now and into the world of the book.

Lord of Opium is published by Atheneum/Simon & Schuster and will be released on September 3, 2013.

By Megan Kurashige