The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

Posted November 28, 2019 by Amber in Reviews / 2 Comments

The House of the Scorpion

The House of the Scorpion

by Nancy Farmer

Series: Matteo Alacran #1
Publisher: Atheneum Books on September 1, 2002
Genre: Dystopia, Science Fiction
Target Age Group: Adult, New Adult, Young Adult

Rating: ★★★★

Check out this book on Goodreads

At his coming-of-age party, Matteo Alacrán asks El Patrón's bodyguard, "How old am I? ... I know I don't have a birthday like humans, but I was born."

"You were harvested," Tam Lin reminds him. "You were grown in that poor cow for nine months and then you were cut out of her."

To most people around him, Matt is not a boy, but a beast. But for El Patrón, lord of a country called Opium--a strip of poppy field lying between the U.S. and what was once called Mexico--Matt is a guarantee of eternal life. El Patrón loves Matt as he loves himself, for Matt is himself. They share identical DNA.

As Matt struggles to understand his existence, he is threatened by a sinister, grasping cast of characters, including El Patrón's power-hungry family. He is surrounded by a dangerous army of bodyguards and by the mindless slaves of Opium, brain-deadened 'eejits' who toil in the poppy fields.

Escape from the Alacrán Estate is no guarantee of freedom because Matt is marked by his difference in ways he doesn't even suspect. Around every turn in this vivid, futuristic adventure is a new, heart-stopping surprise.


I’d be lying if I said The House of the Scorpion didn’t completely hold my attention.

While the pacing in this book was a bit slow and meandering, I quickly became interested in what happened to the various characters.  I immediately loved Maria for all her spirit and care and her character arc made so much sense to me – I felt like it moved flawlessly.  But it wasn’t just Maria.  Matt, the main character, was interesting enough within the confines of his existential crisis.  The side characters were all interesting in one way or another and I really appreciated the way that Nancy Farmer always came back with surprises and developments about her characters.  Nobody was forgotten.

My personal favorites?  Maria, who grew up alongside our protagonist, and Tam Lin.  Generally I love a good “found family” story, but I particularly liked Tam Lin as that stand-in father figure.  There were twists and nuances to his character that made the ending particularly heart-wrenching for me, as well as a brief twist in the middle.

It’s not the characters, though, that make The House of the Scorpion truly interesting.  It’s the worldbuilding.  The worldbuilding is fantastic.  And it’s all there – blossoming out like a blooming rare flower.  We start in a small part of the world with a limited frame of reference in this dystopian landscape… then as Matt grows, so does the world around him.  The world in The House of the Scorpion is familiar enough to feel possible while being deplorable enough to warrant caution to its readers.  That is a solid dystopia, and much more subtle than many that are written after the YA dystopia boom with The Hunger Games and Divergent.

And, by the way, that is precisely what The House of the Scorpion is:  YA.  It’s a much more mature tone than I’m used to seeing in YA, especially YA dystopia.  The voice almost felt like adult dystopia, and the closest thing I can think to compare the writing style to is N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season.  It’s a beautifully written dystopia with a fascinating concept and moral conversation – clones and personhood.  I can’t emphasize enough how much I appreciated the construction of this dystopian world.

But, alas, The House of the Scorpion isn’t perfect.  As I mentioned earlier, the pacing is slow and meandering.  If it was written to be a slice of life, or a sort of expose about the world, I’d more readily accept the cadence… but it’s a duology with the ultimate goal of conquering a drug empire and while I’m curious about where this is headed, the story was so slow for something that seemed like it should have so much excitement.

There were also some early scenes in the novel which, though I found them interesting from a philosophical perspective regarding the status of personhood, did not lend much to the story itself and could have been cut.  At the time The House of the Scorpion was written, YA was not a clearly defined genre and I imagine this book would have been more marketed to the science fiction crowd – to me, that explains many of the indulgences.  It really doesn’t feel like a typical YA novel, and while that doesn’t make it any less of an interesting book, it also means it’s best to go in with different expectations.  Because I have read a variety of adult dystopias (from 1984 to Logan’s Run) the style didn’t throw me badly and I appreciated the very different setting.  This, however, would turn off many other readers.

If you’re a fan of a good dystopia with younger characters growing up in a different world, this is probably a good book to pick up.  Also, remember that old movie The Island with Ewan McGregor and Scarlet Johansson?  Love that movie!  Fans of that film and it’s dystopian concepts will certainly appreciate aspects of The House of the Scorpion.  I was interested enough to listen to this book over the course of two days, and I’m curious to see where the story will take us next.


Ratings Breakdown

Setting: ★★★★★
Plot: ★★★
Characters: ★★★★
Writing: ★★★★
Pacing: ★★★
Writing: ★★★★
Personal Enjoyment: ★★★ 1/2
Overall: ★★★★


What types of dystopias do you enjoy?  I always like the ones where something has gone very morally wrong and the world is scrambling… but a lot of people enjoy post-apocalyptic!  Holler about your faves in the comments! <3

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2 responses to “The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

  1. Ahh, I remember reading this book way back when it first came out! Which meant I was too young for it lol. I didn’t know anything about Mexico or drugs and didn’t really understand what was going on…good to know it holds up today.

    • Amber

      I was so surprised to see it held up, because I feel like a lot of the adult sci-fi and fantasy (this one is complicated – older themes, YA and younger character. It reads somewhere in between to me) written seems have really unfortunate biases. For some reason, House of the Scorpion gave off that vibe and I was just waiting for something to go haywire. But no – it definitely holds up! It’s a bit more serious than similar things in its genre, but it’s a good, interesting read nonetheless. 🙂