The Swan Riders – Erin Bow

You may have noticed that I loved The Scorpion Rules. I loved this one too. It doesn’t come out till September, so you will have to wait to get your hands on it, or you could enter the Twitter contest run by the author to get an ARC.

My number one, somewhat idiosyncratic concern with the sequel was that Elián not be made a bad guy, though he often does things that run counter to how Greta does things and the flap copy hinted at violence on his part. Anyway, he remains a wonderful character and very brave, so I was happy. He and Talis even come to a sort of understanding, which is great.

This is very much Talis’s book, maybe even more so than the narrator Greta’s. Talis is the one who learns and grows, on whose choices the climax turns. Greta’s still great, dignified and selfless and clever, but she’s mainly dealing with the consequences of her choice to become AI in the previous book, rather than making new choices. Her big moments are more epiphanies than actions. Talis, on the other hand, is thrust into a brand-new, identity-altering situation, and learns a great deal as a result about what it means to be human, to be AI, and to love, until finally he has to make a choice.26409580

One thing that I think had improved from the previous book was the handling of race– where in the previous book many nonwhite secondary characters didn’t feel right, in this book, they’re more individual.

Some things I loved:
– Greta’s attempts to hang onto her memories and feelings as an AI, even though they risk destroying her. Talis can help her by taking away the memories’ emotional content, against her will if necessary, but as this goes on, Greta becomes less and less the person she was. “I have lost none of the data,” she repeatedly says, revealing how much she has truly lost.
– Sucking chest wound. Nope, not saying anything more about that.
– The scene where they pretend to torture Elián (and for real dislocate his shoulder). It was the right combination of funny, tense, and revealing of both character and plot.
– The complex motivations of the titular Swan Riders

I was a bit ambivalent about the very end, which I will do my best to discuss with minimal spoilers. Greta divests herself of unjust power, which is very, very important, but I’m not sure she has a plan for what comes next. And while it is morally incumbent on her to get rid of that power regardless, I would be happier if she made a plan for how to do so with the least bad consequences.

A side note: Greta is queer, but her girlfriend is off-stage (though a major motivating force) during this book. So don’t go in expecting more Greta/Xie. I think readers of the previous book will enjoy this one (I couldn’t put it down), but it’s important that they have the right expectations.



The Scorpion Rules – Erin Bow

This book was like id-fic for me. So many elements from my dreams– and nightmares.

It’s an Omelas-type dystopia- a world where the good of the many depends on the suffering of the few. In this case, the few are the children of 25th century world leaders, who are kept hostage throughout their childhood (or as long as their parents are in power) to ensure that their parents don’t start wars. If their parents do, the children are killed. Greta Gustafsen Stuart, our narrator, believes in the system even though it keeps her as a hostage at risk of death. She has a strong sense of dignity, both as a person and in terms of her position as a “Child of Peace”.

Elian, a new arrival at the monastery-like residence of the hostages, has an entirely different idea of dignity. He’s defiant in the face of what he sees as an unjust system, comparing himself to Spartacus, and while the children’s robotic minders go to extreme lengths– even torture– to get him to comply, he continues to rebel until it becomes clear that he’s not the only one who’ll suffer if he keeps it up. In another author’s hands, Elian would be the love interest, but while they kiss a few times and grow close over the course of the novel, Greta’s major romantic relationship is with her (female) roommate, Xie.

Greta is slow to question the system, but she eventually sees the wrongness of her captors’ treatment of Elian– and then they turn on her, too. Ironically, it’s while she’s being tortured with the induced nightmares of “Dreamlock” that the residence is invaded by Elian’s people, who have figured out a way to declare war without sacrificing their hostage. The country they’ve declared war on is Greta’s, and they will stop at nothing to use her against her family.

Oh, did I mention that this whole hostage system is run by an AI?

Talis, the AI, is not happy with the hostage-taking of the hostages. He arrives to sort things out. The trouble is that his idea of sorting things out often involves killing people and destroying entire cities.

I don’t want to summarize the entire plot, but hopefully that gives you an idea of how much you’d like this book. One of its great strengths (it’s written by an ex-physicist) is how well-thought out the AI’s and the technology are– and they become increasingly important as the plot goes on. I normally loathe stories where a person “uploads their mind,” because they fail to take into account that the lack of continuity between the consciousness in the body and the consciousness in the copy, but a few books do it well (Peter Dickinson’s Eva springs to mind). This book doesn’t address all my concerns, but it explores the concept in more interesting ways than most do.

I wish the geopolitics had that same depth– while the cast is diverse (Xie is Asian and Elian is Jewish and “racially indeterminate, like many Americans”), I didn’t feel that the future countries from which the hostages besides Greta and Elian, who are both North American, come were that plausible or textured.

Another weakness is that sometimes concepts are introduced out of nowhere when they become necessary, like “dreamlock,” which was introduced so abruptly that it didn’t feel like an organic part of the world.

However, the strengths more than outweigh the weaknesses. I stayed up till two to see what happened next in this tension-filled story. Erin Bow isn’t afraid to go dark, hard places (and I’m not talking about the violence, but about Greta’s choice at the end and its fallout). Furthermore, characters on all sides of the conflicts have depth and pride, have standards below which they will not sink, even if those standards are very different from person to person.

Greta is a great heroine. I love people who can see past their own self-interest, and while she’s not exactly right when she believes in the hostage system, she’s also noble. I loved her, and I hope she narrates the companion novel, due out next year, as well.

A nonspoilery standout moment in terms of emotion was Greta’s mother’s insistence that Greta not be painted in her monastic Child-of-Peace outfit, because she wants one picture of her not dressed as “Joan of bloody Arc!” And you know it’s because Greta might well die in her role as a Child of Peace, and her mother wants some reminder that’s not connected to the hostage system.

I am waiting on tenterhooks for the sequel. Next year can’t come fast enough.