Front cover of first edition, later printing with medal images
|Cover artist||Russell Gordon|
|Genre||Young adult, science fiction novel, dystopian novel|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||380 (first edition, hard)|
|ISBN||0-689-85222-3 (first edition, hard)|
|LC Class||PZ7.F23814 Ho 2002|
|Followed by||The Lord of Opium|
The House of the Scorpion (2002) is a science fiction young adult novel by Nancy Farmer. It is set in the future and mostly takes place in Opium, a country which separates Aztlán (formerly Mexico) and the United States. The main character Matteo, or Matt, Alacrán, is a young clone of a drug lord of the same name, usually called "El Patrón". It is a story about the struggle to survive as a free individual and the search for a personal identity. It won the U.S. National Book Award for Young People's Literature and was named a Newbery Honor Book and a Michael L. Printz Honor Book. In the speculative fiction field, it was a runner-up for the Locus Award in the young adult category and the Mythopoeic Award in the children's category.
The idea was originally from a short story that Farmer wrote for an anthology, but she withdrew and decided to expand it after realizing it was too closely tied to her own life. It is partially inspired by Farmer helping a Mexican man get to a city in Arizona after leaving Mexico, evidenced in the story through its theme of illegal immigration. The book is not as long as Farmer would have liked because of its young adult audience.
As The House of the Scorpion drew on so much of her childhood, Farmer found it difficult to write the sequel. The sequel, entitled The Lord of Opium, was subsequently published on September 3, 2013. The story begins a few hours after the final events of the first book.
The story is set in the country of Opium, a narrow strip of land between Mexico (now called Aztlán), and the United States, which is ruled by Matteo Alacrán, or El Patrón, an incredibly powerful drug lord who is over 140 years old. Opium consists of several drug-producing Farms, of which the Alacrán estate (which produces opium poppies) is the largest. The protagonist, Matt, is a clone of El Patrón. For the first six years of his life, he lives in a small house on the edge of the poppy fields with Celia, a cook working in El Patrón's mansion. When he is discovered by three children, Emilia and Steven and Maria, he smashes a window and jumps out of the house. Unaware of the danger of jumping barefoot onto smashed glass, he has to be carried to El Patrón's mansion and treated for his injuries. Matt is treated kindly until Mr. Alacrán, El Patrón's great-grandson, recognizes him as a clone, resulting in a few months where he is locked in a room and treated like an animal. When he finds out, El Patrón is furious, but gives Matt clothes and his own room and commands everyone to treat him with respect. Matt is also given a bodyguard, Tam Lin, a reformed terrorist, who becomes a father figure to him. He lives in the house for the next seven years and befriends María, a friendship that gradually blossoms into romance. Matt is kept in the dark about his identity, however, until a cruel joke reveals to him that he is a clone. Matt also discovers that all clones are supposed to be injected when "harvested" (born) with a compound that cripples their brains and turns them into little more than thrashing, drooling animals meant to donate organs. In denial, he convinces himself that El Patrón would not hire tutors for him and keep him entertained if he were intending to kill him, and that instead he must be wanted to run the country when El Patrón dies.
At Steven and Emilia's wedding, El Patrón has a near-fatal heart attack. Matt and María attempt to flee in the ensuing chaos but are betrayed by the newlyweds. María is taken back to the convent where she studies, and Matt is taken to the hospital, where El Patrón at last confirms that Matt was created only as an organ donor to keep him alive. At that moment, Celia reveals that she has been giving Matt doses of arsenic, which, though not large enough to kill Matt, would be deadly to one as frail as El Patrón. El Patrón's resulting rage causes him to have a fatal heart attack. Mr. Alacrán calls doctors to take him to emergency surgery, and after El Patrón dies, he orders Tam Lin to dispose of Matt; Tam Lin pretends to comply, but instead he gives Matt supplies and sets him on a path to Aztlán.
Arriving in Aztlán, Matt comes across a group of orphans called the "Lost Boys", who he is sent to live with by the "Keepers", fervent followers of Marxism. The Keepers operate plankton farms, forcing the orphans to do manual labor and subsist on plankton while they enjoy luxurious quarters and food. At first, Matt is an outcast because the other boys think he is a spoiled aristocrat. However, he becomes a hero when he defies the Keepers and leads the boys in a rebellion. He flees to the nearest city, San Luis, with three friends to find María and her mother, the politically powerful Esperanza Mendoza.
Esperanza thanks the boys for giving her the ability to take down the Keepers. Matt learns that Opium is in country-wide lock down, but manages to re-enter the country, only to learn that the entire Alacrán family is dead, and the estate is empty except for servants, including Celia. Those at El Patrón's wake, including Tam Lin, drank poisoned wine that El Patrón saved to be served at his funeral, as he never intended to die and wanted to either run the business forever, or have it and everyone else die with him. Matt takes on the role of El Patrón to become the new ruler of Opium and dismantle the regime.