Themes: / YA / clones / genetic engineering / science fiction / gadgets /
Matt has always been nothing but a clone—grown from a strip of old El Patron’s skin. Now, at age fourteen, he finds himself suddenly thrust into the position of ruling over his own country. The Land of Opium is the largest territory of the Dope Confederacy, which ranges on the map like an intestine from the ruins of San Diego to the ruins of Matamoros. But while Opium thrives, the rest of the world has been devastated by ecological disaster—and hidden in Opium is the cure. And that isn’t all that awaits within the depths of Opium. Matt is haunted by the ubiquitous army of eejits, zombielike workers harnessed to the old El Patron’s sinister system of drug growing—people stripped of the very qualities that once made them human. Matt wants to use his newfound power to help, to stop the suffering, but he can’t even find a way to smuggle his childhood love, Maria, across the border and into Opium. Instead, his every move hits a roadblock, some from the enemies that surround him…and some from a voice within himself. For who is Matt really, but the clone of an evil, murderous dictator?
I wish that I could have read The Lord of Opium as a teenager. If I had, I would have probably loved this book, which is packed with sinister characters, difficult moral choices, scifi gadgets, and enough action to rival any movie. Before we go any further in this review, I will say that if you buy books for a teenager, or enjoy teen novels, then you absolutely should read both The Lord of Opium and its predecessor The House of the Scorpion. That said, I had the misfortune of reading this book not only as an adult, but as an English major, writer, and as a teacher who has guided multiple years of students through reading The House of the Scorpion. Therefore, I am intimately aware of every flaw in the story.
Matteo Alacrán is the clone of a drug lord known as El Patrón, created as a source of spare parts for his aging progenitor. Fortunately for him, El Patrón is now dead, along with his entire family and all of the other drug lords, leaving Matt as the sole ruler of Opium at the age of fourteen. This is not just an inherited position. Matt, as the clone of El Patrón, is the only person with the correct genetic code and fingerprints to unlock the lethal border security system that surrounds the entire country.
Yes, I said fingerprints. In case you are unaware, clones do not share fingerprints with their progenitors, just as identical twins do not share fingerprints, yet Matt having similar fingerprints to El Patrón is a key element of both books in this series.
If it sounds like I am fixating on a single issue, I promise that I am merely mentioning the fingerprints as a spoiler-free example of the sort of problem that runs throughout The Lord of Opium. Matt adopts an eejit (a sort of mind-controlled slave) as a pet and happens to discover a way to make her remember a small part of who she is. Matt’s friends come to visit and find long lost family members. Matt gets sick, is brought to a new hospital, and learns that he is not the only remaining clone of El Patrón. Matt’s bodyguard suggests a dangerous and completely unnecessary adventure, and Matt finds a clue that will be essential to the climax of the story. And the list goes on, and on.
I don’t want to give away the entire plot of the novel, so I won’t explain how any of these events are related, but I think they are worth mentioning to demonstrate the problem that I have with The Lord of Opium. Namely, that it is a novel of big ideas trying to masquerade as a teen fiction book. Had this story been told for an adult audience, or broken into several parts and told as a series of adventures for teens, I think that the author would have been more successful in crafting a compelling story. All of the pieces are there, from the vicious politics of the Dope Confederacy, to the isolated community of the Biosphere, to the ecological wasteland of God’s Ashtray. Each of these elements is glossed over in the text of this novel, serving as little more than a source of or solution to one conflict or another, but each could easily be the core element of an entire novel.
It is worth noting that I am now over five hundred words into this review and I have hardly mentioned any character other than Matt. This is intentional. The single best thing about this novel is the development of a new character named Cienfuegos, and I don’t want to take away any of your pleasure in reading about him, and the single worst part of this novel is probably Matt’s interactions with his girlfriend Maria, which I will leave for you to suffer.
As it is, The Lord of Opium is a competent novel that strains at the seams with obvious foreshadowing, unexplored plot lines, and a climax that hangs almost entirely on mistakes and coincidence. The character development is incredibly uneven, but so good in parts that I find myself wishing for an entire novel about one minor character or another. It is not a bad novel by an means, but it could have been so much more.
The audiobook of The Lord of Opium is one of the best productions that I have heard this year. Raúl Esparaza gives a pitch-perfect performance, complete with distinct and appropriate voices for nearly every character. Matt sounds young, but is never whiney. The voices for female characters are distinct, but not overly high-pitched. Particularly good are the voices for El Patrón (as he appears in Matt’s memory) and the Farm Patrol chief Cienfuegos, both of which are perfectly sinister without slipping into the realm of costume villainy.
Posted by Andrew Linke