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Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Lord of Opium (Matteo Alacrán #2) by Nancy Farmer

Matt has always been nothing but a clone—grown from a strip of old El Patrón’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 Patr
ón’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?

Released: September 3rd 2013                             Pages: 411
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers     Source: Library

I read The House of the Scorpion in fifth or sixth grade, and I loved it.  I have a vivid memory of being excited for standardized testing because it meant I had time to read (I liked standardized testing when I was younger because I've always been a fast test-taker, which meant at least half an hour of reading time for me).  I remember sitting in a desk that I'd shoved into a corner of the room, being absolutely enthralled by the book.

Now, I don't remember that much of it.  I remember how it made me think, and I remember vague plot points, but other details escape me.  Still, I've counted it as being among my favorite books for years.  So, naturally, I assumed I would also love The Lord of Opium.

If I went and reread The House of the Scorpion now, I don't think I would be as impressed by it.  The Lord of Opium won't leave the same impact on my mind.  Yes, it's thought-provoking, but these ideas are never fully explored, and it's too weighed down by other plot and narration issues.  My biggest problem was that the plot hardly goes anywhere.  It has a clear focus--Matt wantes to re-humanize the eejits and eliminate the opium farms altogether.  (Ambitious goals, but he's a socially isolated fourteen-year-old who has suddenly become a drug lord.  I'll give him a break.)  Still, things happen at an annoyingly slow rate.  Matt goes to visit people, talks to scientists and Cienfuegos, tries to connect with Mirasol (an eejit), mopes around.  Little of this is exciting, and it gets old pretty fast.

Even though Matt is fourteen years old, the narration reads like that of a twelve-year-old.  It's overly simplistic.  Sentences tend to be short, which makes everything seem choppy.  It doesn't fit with the tone of the book or the intended audience.  Again, I understand that Matt is socially and, in some ways, developmentally stunted, but his actions and words were more mature than the narration made him seem.  If the narration had matched this, the entire book would have flowed better.

Matt himself is an interesting character--I could see the struggle between his own thoughts and what he felt were the intrusion of El Patrón's. He has a fascinating yet sad backstory, and it gave him an interesting personality. The side characters, however, weren't anywhere near as interesting. Some of the kids (like Listen) acted too old for their age, some too young (like María). None of them ever grabbed my attention, and sometimes it felt like there were too many characters for the story.

All that being said, this book has some truly thought-provoking ideas, and asks some difficult and relevant questions. What is the relationship of a clone to the original? How much of a clone is their own--their body, their thoughts, their personality, their instincts? When does a human being stop being a person, if ever? None of these things are easy to answer. Nancy Farmer explores them through Matt's complicated relationship with El Patrón (before and after his death), his attempted connection with Mirasol, and his new role as drug lord. Like I mentioned earlier, these things weren't discussed quite thoroughly enough for my liking, but they helped slightly redeem the book, for me.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about this. The premise and its ideas are fascinating, but the plot is slow. The narration is simplistic and choppy, and there are so many flat side characters. It's probably worth a read if you enjoyed The House of the Scorpion, but I'm a bit disappointed with it.

Similar Books: It deals with questions of personhood, for lack of a better term, like Unwind.  It presents a bleak dystopian future like Ship Breaker, The Knife of Never Letting Go, and Blood Red Road.

PS: just listed this blog as one of their top five must-read writer blogs.  I'm honored (and a bit taken aback) to have my blog listed on par with people like Nathan Bransford, Maggie Stiefvater, and Chuck Wendig.  So, yay!  I've been following three of the four other blogs mentioned for a long time, so this makes me really happy.  (Nathan Bransford's blog basically taught me how to write query letters.)

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