Book Review: The Lord of Opium by Nancy Farmer

The Lord of Opium by Nancy Farmer

Posted January 29, 2021 by Amber in Reviews / 0 Comments

The Lord of Opium

The Lord of Opium

by Nancy Farmer

Series: Matteo Alacran #2
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers on September 3, 2013
Genre: Dystopia, Science Fiction
Target Age Group: Adult, New Adult, Young Adult
Representation: BIPOC, Black, Latinx
Content Warnings: Child Abuse, Death, Death of Parent, Drug Use, Grief, Kidnapping, Medical Content, Murder, Slavery, Violence

Rating: ★★★★

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Matt has always been nothing but a clone—grown from a strip of old El Patron’s skin. Now, at age fourteen, he finds himself suddenly thrust into the position of ruling over his own country. The Land of Opium is the largest territory of the Dope Confederacy, which ranges on the map like an intestine from the ruins of San Diego to the ruins of Matamoros. But while Opium thrives, the rest of the world has been devastated by ecological disaster—and hidden in Opium is the cure.

And that isn’t all that awaits within the depths of Opium. Matt is haunted by the ubiquitous army of eejits, zombielike workers harnessed to the old El Patron’s sinister system of drug growing—people stripped of the very qualities that once made them human.

Matt wants to use his newfound power to help, to stop the suffering, but he can’t even find a way to smuggle his childhood love, Maria, across the border and into Opium. Instead, his every move hits a roadblock, some from the enemies that surround him…and some from a voice within himself. For who is Matt really, but the clone of an evil, murderous dictator?


While not quite as immersive and compelling as The House of the ScorpionThe Lord of Opium continues Matteo’s story after the major event at the end of the first novel.  While the tension I remember from Scorpion wasn’t present in this book, I was nevertheless drawn in by Farmer’s unique dystopian story and Matteo’s personal journey.

I think the concept is interesting – what happens when someone rises to power who wants to undo the carefully crafted dystopian world?  It’s a perspective I’ve never seen before.  The new characters introduced in The Lord of Opion hold their own against the long standing characters from Scorpion, and each in their own way contributes to the careful unraveling of the empire.  My favorite of these was Mushroom Master, who managed to be charming and insightful in every scene.

Farmer remains true to the original premise of this duology in that the teens and children run the show.  I remember feeling like this was an unusual YA series when I read Scorpion, and I stand by that now.  The writing here is more formal than most modern YA.  However, the characters still do a decent job acting their age, something I can’t necessarily say for all YA novels.  There are scrapes that Matt and the others find themselves in that really do require adult intervention.  One thing I do love, though, was that the adult characters – particularly the allied ones – never underestimated Matt because of his age. At most, they warned him that others might.  It was well done to show the power and respect his position brought, and not fall into common tropes.

As with Scorpion, the world building here is fabulous.  Opium and the state of the extended world has already been established, but in The Lord of Opium we explore a few new locations that add richness and depth to our previous understanding.  The best of these is the Biosphere, though conceptually, the Scorpion Star is worthy of mention as well.  I also appreciated the fact that the voice and story felt consistent, despite the eleven year publication gap between books.

The plot is very slow and if anything, I’d say The Lord of Opium is more of a character-driven novel, pushed forward by Matteo’s desire to undo the mess left to him.  It still carries many interesting themes, including personhood and freedom, which were strong themes in Scorpion.  We also cover grief and love a bit in this one, mingled with explorations of trust and power.  A good chunk of the book also explores environmental themes within the dystopian world and attempts to restore the land, which I appreciated.  It’s funny – so many dystopian novels focus on the degradation of the planet and on famine, but I don’t know that I can really think of any where the protagonist is trying to solve that problem instead of just enduring it.  So that was good.

Because The Lord of Opium is written in a different tone than most YA, I think this is the perfect duology for “people who think YA is too young”.  It’s a great bridge story with a more serious tone but still age appropriate characters dealing with the challenge of fulfilling their roles in society and making the sorts of choices that define their character.  I really enjoyed both these books, but they’re still the sort I’d be cautious recommending unless I knew the person’s style well.  For example, I don’t know that fans of Serpent & Dove would love this one, but I think that fans of The Giver and The Hunger Games and Illuminae may be more open to it.  All and all, though, these novels are really worth a try if they pique your interest at all.  They’re creative and unique and immersive and would make a fabulous HBO series.

Ratings Breakdown

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

4 Star Rating


If you had the opportunity and position to fix a dystopian world, albeit at the expense of your own comfort and privilege, would you do it?   I would like to think that I would make choices to impact the overall greater good, but I also know that I’m a flawed person so I would need people to support me and help – I definitely couldn’t do it all alone (I’m selfish).  What about you?  Tell me about it in the comments!

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