Nancy Farmer took an entire decade to publish this sequel to the multi-award winning House of the Scorpion, so expectations are understandably high. The House of the Scorpion is a young adult novel that I think everyone should read, whether or not they enjoy teen literature. [*Spoiler alert for House of the Scorpion!*] In this earlier work, Matt Alacrán is a young child living on a huge, wealthy farm in a fictional country between the United States and Aztlán (Mexico), and he basks in the favor of El Patrón, the old man who rules over all. As he grows older, he learns that the farm grows opium, the source of all their wealth, that the workers are eejits with microchips in their brains, and that he himself is a clone who exists only to provide spare parts for El Patrón as he ages. At the age of fourteen, Matt runs away to Aztlán, which is now in a post-apocalyptic state, and when he returns to Opium, El Patrón has died, along with all of his family and servants, and Matt is the new ruler of the land.
The Lord of Opium picks up exactly where The House of the Scorpion left off. Without giving you too many details, I will say that Nancy Farmer has written another masterful work filled with themes that address some eternal questions and some questions that are ripped from the headlines. Although he is naïve and immature, Matt is a kind and honorable person, and his first impulse is to find a way to remove the microchips from the eejits’ brains, rescue his true love, Maria, from her ecoterrorist mother, and convert the farm to food crops. Since he has the exact same fingerprint as El Patrón, he can open all security doors and control all of the technology that makes the country work.
However, even with all of his power and wealth, Matt discovers that his worthy goals are just not easily achieved. If he opens the borders of the country, the other drug lords and the other governments will rush in with troops to destroy Opium, just as they’ve made a wasteland of the rest of the world. Furthermore, the eejits do not know how to do anything else, and they will starve in a very short time. In a stark symbol, Matt learns that the bodies of 200,000 dead eejits are buried under the opium fields, fertilizing future crops. Most troubling of all, if Matt can remove the microchips, most of his closest companions will turn and kill him. With his endless wealth and limitless power, this teenage boy is utterly alone.
Nancy Farmer has succeeded in making the world of the Alacráns even more vivid and compelling than in her first book. The fictional setting allows us to discuss issues that we must face in our own world: When people are forced to perform degrading tasks in order to survive, what happens to their souls? When other people have complete power over them, will those in power begin to decide who is human and who is a “surplus person”? Does slavery today look different than it did two centuries ago, and does our technology allow us to hide horrors behind scientific arrogance? Are there any possible solutions to illegal immigration and the drug wars on our southern border?
The Lord of Opium is a complex and beautifully written book that will make a powerful impact on the reader. I did read The House of the Scorpion again before starting it, and I think that it is necessary to do so. Because of that, and because it deals with adult themes, I do not think it will be eligible for the Newbery Medal. The Printz Award does not rule out sequels, however, and since it has the literary excellence that the Printz Committee does require, it will still be eligible. I look forward to reading the discussion about sequels that is sure to come this fall.
I highly recommend both The House of the Scorpion and The Lord of Opium to all teens and adults.
Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of The Lord of Opium. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.