I first read The House of the Scorpion in sixth grade for Battle of the Books. I fell in love with the world-building, the characters, the horrors that Matt accepted as the reality of his world. Maria, Celia and the boys from the plankton factory helped Matt slowly become his own person and to escape El Patron, who was part kind old man and part monster. It was probably my first dystopian novel.
I spent a week of commuting listening to this on audiobook, with the lovely Raul Esparza as narrator, and I thought I would love this. Unfortunately, where The House of the Scorpion made me fall in love with it, The Lord of Opium broke it.
Raul Esparza did a great job as the narrator, giving each character their own tones, doing accents that were perfect for their characters. I love that a Latino actor was chosen for this book that deals so much with Spanish names, characters and culture. He was the best part of this reading experience for me.
The new book continues the story of Matt, the boy who was cloned from evil drug lord El Patrón in The House of the Scorpion. Now 14 years old, Matt rules his own country, the Land of Opium, the only thriving place in a world ravaged by ecological disaster. Though he knows that the cure for ending the suffering is hidden in Opium, Matt faces obstacles and enemies at every turn when he tries to use his power to help.
Almost all of our beloved characters come back to Opium, and yet nothing is as it should be. Matt is learning how to be a drug lord, and trying to make a difference in his own way, but he doesn’t even know how to be himself because he’s still only fourteen. He also suddenly begins feeling and acting like El Patron, the man he was cloned from.
One of my biggest problems with this novel was Matt’s treatment of women in this novel. He blows entirely hot and cold with Maria, who has been his strongest ally and truest friend throughout his life. Worse, though, was his infatuation with Marisol, one of the eejits.
If you haven’t read the books, eejits are people that have been implanted with a microchip that basically remove free will and restrict brain function so that they can only do basic tasks. Most of them cannot even eat without a command, or sleep. They’ll stand next to whatever they need until the starve to death. It’s a horrific state of being.
Marisol/Waitress had no free will of her own, she could only serve meals with basic commands. But Matt fell in love with her, and realized that a particular song made her dance, after which she would fall into a deep sleep. Matt kissed her several times while she was asleep over the course of the book, and it’s creepy enough that he’s kissing her while she’s asleep. It’s even worse when you realize that she has absolutely no way to stop him, because he was her master and she had no free will.
Nancy Farmer responded in a blog post in 2014 to some of the criticism with this:
“One of the most astonishing criticisms was about Matt kissing Mirasol when she was asleep. This was deemed sexual harassment of the worst sort. If you examine the book you will see that I was using the symbol of Sleeping Beauty. Mirasol is compared to a statue at the bottom of a lake that becomes visible for only a few short minutes. It has nothing to do with sex. In the first book Matt talks to Rosa, his sadistic caretaker, after she has been turned into an eejit. He is trying to wake her up. Mr. Ortega tries to wake up Eusebio with music and gives this idea to Matt. The relationship between Matt and Mirasol is one of pity mixed with love. And love is not the same as sex.”
That response is unacceptable, frankly. Playing a song to try to wake someone is one thing, a kiss is something entirely different. Love does not excuse harmful behavior. Love isn’t there unless it’s reciprocated. No, he didn’t have sex with her, but his behavior was sexual in nature, and that’s not acceptable. He had good intentions wanting to wake her, but the way they were put forth was creepy and harmful.
There were some beautiful quotes in The Lord of Opium that brought me back to The House of the Scorpion, like this one:
“I think people have an instinct for a family. You look until you find a mother, a father, a sister, a brother. They don’t have to be blood relatives. They just have to love you. And when you find them, you don’t have to look anymore.”
I have loved so many of Farmer’s books, but this one did not work for me. So many things were left unhandled, and the final couple of paragraphs really just pissed me off. This book left a bad aftertaste in my mouth, and I think I’m going to ignore its existence. It had some good aspects, but it could have been so much better. I’m rating The Lord of Opium two stars.