Note: Given the widespread use of this book in schools and the subsequent familiarity with it, this review contains spoilers, but the spoiler section is marked and hidden unless you mouse over it.
This book has won many big awards, including the 2003 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the 2003 Honor for the Michael L. Printz Award and the 2003 Honor for the Newbery Award, so when I saw a sequel was out, I knew I should take the opportunity to read it at last.
This scifi/dystopia is set in the future in the country of Opium, a strip of land between Mexico (now called Aztlán), and the United States. Opium is a country dedicated to opium farming, and is ruled by Matteo Alacrán, known as El Patrón. As the story begins he is 140 years old, kept alive by surgical enhancements. He also has a clone, Matt, whom we first meet at age six. Matt is an exceptional clone; those not made from someone as powerful as El Patrón are chemically lobotomized. The people of Opium are contemptuous of the clones, for whom they have more repugnance even than for “eejits” – the servants and laborers. These “zombies” have gotten microchips put in their brains to make them more docile and willing to perform mind-numbing jobs.
Matt lives with a caretaker, Celia. He also has as a father figure Tam Lin, one of the bodyguards of El Patrón. Both Celia and Tam Lin raise Matt as if he were their own, with plenty of love and guidance. Matt also has a peer who is his only friend, Maria, the daughter of a powerful U.S. Senator who often visits El Patrón. Maria is the sort who rescues puppies and kittens. Although Maria isn’t sure Matt should be regarded as more than her favorite dog, she is attached to him and indeed, is probably the only one besides his caretakers who isn’t repulsed by him.
As the story progresses, Matt is turning into a man, and when he does, he learns the truth about himself, El Patrón, the state of Opium, and the actual truth about the eejits.
PLOT SUMMARY SPOILERS FOLLOW; MOUSE OVER IT TO SEE IT:
When El Patrón is in danger of dying, Matt learns that he has been created so that his organs can be harvested to keep El Patrón alive. Celia, who loves Matt, reveals to El Patrón that she has been giving Matt small doses of arsenic so that his organs would be fatal if used. El Patrón becomes apoplectic and dies of a heart attack before he can find another donor. Tam Lin is ordered to kill Matt and get rid of the body; instead, he takes Matt to a place where he can escape, giving him maps and food and money. He tells Matt to head for the San Luis convent in in Aztlán, the former Mexico, where he can find Maria and her mother, Esperanza, who is a revolutionary.
Matt makes it to Aztlán, but is taken into an “orphanage” where boys are forced by “Keepers” to do labor and subsist on plankton, which makes them all break out in pustules. Matt is resented by the Keepers because he is not weak and obedient like the other boys, so they bind up him and his new friend Chacho and put them out in the desert to die. Two other friends, Fidelio and Ton-Ton, help them escape, and the four of them make their way to the convent. There, they receive care and medical treatment, but Esperanza wants more from Matt. El Patrón is dead, but his clone is alive, and therefore, as Esperanza explains, Matt is now legally El Patrón: “You own everything he owned and rule everything he ruled.” Esperanza wants Matt to go back to Opium, take charge, and destroy the opium empire.
As the book ends, Matt returns to Opium and vows to live up to the ideals taught to him by Celia and Tam Lin, and do what needs to be done.
SPOILERS END HERE.
Discussion: Since the time this book was written, the number of dystopias has exploded, and the genre has gotten a lot more sophisticated. I think that is why I wasn’t as taken with this book as I might have been. A lot of the story has to do with Matt’s psychological adjustment to what he is and how he is treated, so there isn’t really much in the way of the non-stop action we have come to expect from this genre. Matt is quite well-developed as a character as is the very lovable Tam Lin, but not so much anyone else.
The conceit about the globe being divided into empires ruled by drug lords is clever and other themes, such as the dehumanizing of those we mistreat, are well done if not exceptionally innovative.
Evaluation: I wasn’t enamored of this book, but I’m in a very small minority in that regard. I was, however, motivated to read the sequel.
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2002