My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Narrated by Raul Esparza
Matteo Alacran is a clone. He was grown from a strip of skin taken from El Patron, the drug lord known as the king of Opium, a land made up of parts of the southwestern US and Mexico. Cloning is a common practice among the rich and powerful, who use their clones as living organ donors. The clones are regarded as little more than livestock, and most have their intelligence destroyed when they are harvested. But El Patron is different. He lets his clones be raised somewhat normally if isolated from the rest of the household, and educated until he needs their services. Matt is befriended by Maria, one of the children in El Patron’s household, and his caretaker, Celia, and his Scots bodyguard, Tam Lin. He is rescued from his tormentor, Rosa, when El Patron discovers how he is being treated. Matt thinks he is different, that El Patron really loves him and his fate will be unlike El Patron’s previous clones. When he finds out the truth, he escapes with help from Celia and Tam Lin, only to find that the paradise he was told about outside of the drug lord’s empire isn’t quite what he expected.
I’ve seen this book mentioned a few times since it came out a number of years ago. It’s definitely dystopian, since the world outside of the kingdom of Opium is in environmental crisis and conditions are desperate for many people. It is often listed as YA, but the story, although centered around Matt from the time he is about six until he is fourteen or fifteen, is more about the ethical and moral issues of cloning and control. Cloning for organ donation is not the only ethically marginal issue here. There are also the eejits, people who are captured trying to escape Astlan (what we know as Mexico) for the imagined better life waiting in the US. Most are stopped by the Farm Patrol in Opium, and have chips implanted in their brains to make them little more than slaves to work the opium fields. The same is done to animals to make them easier to handle. These issues are personified in Matt, who is not an eejit, but is still aware of their existence and the things they have in common.
The world building in the story is very well done. Although the world outside Opium isn’t seen until late in the book, the contrast is evident as soon as Matt makes it across the border into Astlan. Opium is lush and green, with fields of fragrant white poppies, and gardens and an oasis that becomes Matt’s haven. The outside world is devastated, barren, and environmentally ruined. The differences are stark and almost frightening.
Characters are generally good, also. Matt is perhaps a bit too precocious in the beginning of the book when he is very young, but we learn quickly that he is quite intelligent and perceptive, things that no one in his world expect in a clone (except Maria, Celia, and Tam Lin). You can feel his emotional response to being treated as little more than an animal, when he himself feels no different than the people around him. El Patron is frightening and represents the corruption and egotism that can accompany almost unlimited wealth and power. Celia is the mother figure with a dark side, and Tam Lin is rough and has a shady past, but with an intelligence and understanding of both the world at large and the workings of Opium. The only major character I was not impressed with was Maria. She seemed a bit shallow and flighty, and while she and Matt do love each other, she didn’t impress me as being quite as rounded as the others.
The book is read by Raul Esparza (a bonus for me!) and was very well read and acted. Having a narrator who speaks Spanish was a good thing for a book with as much Mexican/Spanish phrases and dialogue as this one has.
I liked the book, and I think it will make you think about some of the ethical issues raised, but they never get in the way of the story. It would be enjoyed by both young adult and adult readers, and even by some who don’t necessarily read science fiction on a regular basis.
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