The House of the Scorpion was refreshing after a string of eight(!) books and graphic novels in the last three weeks that I didn't enjoy. (Yes, I'm doing a lot more than assigned reading lately.)
I'm reminded of The Giver in the positive sense that Matt comes into a world that seems wonderful and loving at first, but really is a generations-long horror. Coming of age is coming to see this reality. In both stories, a part of future North America has been set aside from the larger world and is living in its own well-ordered bubble, at great human cost. It's much easier to see the route from here to Matt's world than Jonas' world, because it comes from a devilish solution to the concerns about drugs and illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States. I greatly appreciated the timing of the information dump for the backstory: far enough along for me to care about this information and full enough not to leave me feeling teased.
The Hispanic cultural setting was also a refreshing change from science fiction that is too often limited to non-Hispanic whites speaking English in spaaaaace...or other future scenarios. Catholic religion and regional superstitions (e.g. el chupacabra and la llorona) are blended in the realistic way of today and not suddenly missing just because some antigrav tech is available. I was quite happy to see St. Francis winning yet another convert in Maria. I don't know if Farmer is trying to evangelize in this book, but if she is she certainly picked one of the most appealing, positive ways to do it. If she's not, then she did a good job of showing the power of inspiration anyway.
I also appreciated the approach to cloning. I want today's youth to realize that clones are nothing but identical twins born out of time. They aren't "the same person" or even all that identical. There will be similarities and tendencies, but twins can go in trajectories as different as those of El Patrón and Matteo. What made the difference? The kindness he was shown by Celia, Tam Lin, and Maria. And, perhaps, seeing how empty life had become for El Patrón.
Tam Lin was an especially engaging character because he showed that someone can be barely literate, but wise...and guilty but compassionate.
My only complaint is that the last fifth of the book felt rushed. When Matt collapsed next to the river, it's almost like he died from the fumes and in his last moments hallucinated things going so easily right until the end of the book. Suddenly someone shows up with an inhaler? And medical help for his friend? And a ride directly to the convent? And Maria's mother walks in and pulls off a triumphant "gotcha" to take down the orphan abusers with the full weight of civil government? And Matt returns to find no opposition at all to becoming the internationally-recognized ruler of a sovereign nation? Are you KIDDING ME? It's more likely that Nancy Farmer rushed the rest of the story and meant it to be taken literally, especially since there is a sequel that picks up from here. But it's such a downshift in literary quality that I would almost prefer it were fake, even though I despise those kinds of endings too.
I'm still recommending this to friends on the strength of everything up to the bone pit at least. I'm tempted to say it would have been better to end the story when Matt emerged, but I like the way Matt was victorious in that segment of the story by inspiring other boys to stand up for themselves and break out of their imprisonment on their own initiative.
I look forward to reading more from Nancy Farmer!