The Swan Riders: A Review

*The Swan Riders is the sequel/companion to The Scorpion Rules. As such this review contains major spoilers for book one.*

The Swan Riders by Erin BowGreta Gustafson Stuart, former princess of the Pan Polar Confederation, is a newly minted Artificial Intelligence. In agreeing to become an AI, Greta has saved herself and fellow hostage Elián Palnik while avoiding the wrath of Talis–the all-powerful AI who rules the world with the judicious use of satellite weaponry, carefully chosen hostages, and his Swan Riders who act as part army and part cult for Talis and the other AIs.

Greta is the first new AI in more than a century. Haunted by memories of her time as a hostage growing up at Precepture Four–including torture, friendship, and Xie, the future queen and the lover Greta had to leave behind–Greta struggles to cling to what is left of her humanity while learning her capabilities as an AI. With the future of the world hanging in the balance, Greta will have to use everything she knows about being AI and human to bring her two dramatically different worlds together in The Swan Riders (2016) by Erin Bow.

Find it on Bookshop.

This sequel picks up shortly after the conclusion of The Scorpion Rules. Quick recaps and Greta’s own memories bring readers up to speed in this fast-paced sci-fi novel although knowledge of the first book is ideal.

Bow dramatically expands the world here by introducing more of the landscape as Talis, Greta, and two Swan Riders travel across Saskatchewan toward the AI home base near Montana. Interludes from Talis’ point of view–both in his present form as an all-powerful AI and in flashbacks to his time as the idealistic Michael Talis who wanted to save the world–add another dimension to this disturbingly likable character who is both hero and villain.The Swan Riders themselves also play a significant role in this story that is as much about what it means to be human as it is about what it means to rule, and maybe save, the world.

Weighty subject matter and heavy questions about what is best versus what is right are tempered with humor and Greta’s wry first-person narration. Complex characters further enhance the introspective nature of this story as Greta tries to figure out who she is when so much of her past is now irrelevant to her future. Like its predecessor The Swan Riders again has a thoughtfully diverse cast of characters with familiar faces and newer additions including Francis Xavier, a stoic dark-skinned Swan Rider born with one hand.

The Swan Riders is a fascinating follow-up and stunning story from an author at the top of her game. A must-read for fans of The Scorpion Rules.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson,  Fire by Kristin Cashore, Gravemaidens by Kelly Coon, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Winterspell by Claire LeGrand, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, Skyhunter by Marie Lu, Soundless by Richelle Mead, Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate, Clariel by Garth Nix, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, Amber & Dusk by Lyra Selene, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, And I Darken by Kiersten White

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in School Library Journal’s August 2016 Issue as a Starred Review from which it can be seen on various sites online*

The Scorpion Rules: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Scorpion Rules by Erin BowTalis’s first rule of stopping wars is to make it personal.

Charged with saving humanity from itself, the powerful artificial intelligence swiftly establishes a series of rules and initiatives to keep humanity at peace. Oh, and he also takes over the world.

Four hundred years later, Talis’s every word is recorded in the Utterances and some cultures believe he is a god. They might be right.

To ensure that the world’s leaders know the exact cost of any declaration of war, Talis takes hostages. The Children of Peace are the heirs to thrones and ruling positions around the world. They are hostages living under the constant threat of execution.

If war is declared the lives of both nation’s hostages are immediately forfeit.

Greta Gustafson Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederation, is a seventh generation hostage at Precepture Four in Saskatchewan where she has lived most of her life. She embodies the ideals of the Children of Peace and knows to follow the rules even with her country on the brink of war.

Elián Palnik is a new hostage who arrives at Precepture Four with none of the dignity ingrained in the other hostages. Instead he refuses to accept any of the tenets of the Children of Peace, forcing Greta to question everything she believes as she struggles to save Elián from Talis, the Precepture and even himself in The Scorpion Rules (2015) by Erin Bow.

Find it on Bookshop.

I’m hesitant to say I enjoyed The Scorpion Rules, or even that it’s a favorite, simply because parts of it are so harrowing and so difficult to process. But I can say this: Bow delivers a knock-out dystopian that I devoured with my heart in my mouth.

Greta is a pragmatic and analytical narrator with a wry sense of humor even in the worst situations. Goats also help bring levity to the otherwise weighty narrative in countless ways.

Masterful, electric prose and wit make even the hardest moments bearable as Greta and her friends endure countless hardships with grace and aplomb befitting the world’s future leaders in this powerful story.

The Scorpion Rules is further strengthened by a diverse, memorable cast of characters with realistically complicated relationships (both romantic and platonic), brilliant plotting and shocking twists.The minute readers get a handle on the story, Bow turns everything upside down and moves the novel in a new direction.

A gripping story about rebirth, transformation and choice. The Scorpion Rules weaves together science, ethics and humor in this story that delves deep into the human condition and questions the nature of choice and what must be sacrificed for the sake of the greater good.

Guaranteed to have high appeal on many levels. Highly Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson,  Fire by Kristin Cashore, Gravemaidens by Kelly Coon, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Winterspell by Claire LeGrand, Soundless by Richelle Mead, Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, Skyhunter by Marie Lu, Clariel by Garth Nix, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, Amber & Dusk by Lyra Selene, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, And I Darken by Kiersten White

*A copy this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2015*

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the August 2015 issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen on various sites online as a Starred Review*

Zen Shorts: Inaugural Picture Book Review

Zen Shorts by Jon J. MuthZen Shorts (2005) is a picture book written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth. But it’s also a short story collection. And it’s also a philosophy book. And it has a giant panda. Oh, and it is a Caldecott Honor book too.

The story starts when siblings Addy, Michael, and Karl meet Stillwater, a large Panda who wanders into their backyard to retrieve his umbrella. I love the opening scenes of the story. Karl, the youngest sibling, is looking out a window and telling Michael he sees a huge bear. Eventually all of the kids go out and say hello to Stillwater. Addy introduces Karl, who is “shy around bears he doesn’t know.” I find that phrase so enchanting. This kind of charm continues throughout the book.

The next day Addy meets Stillwater for tea. Then Michael and Stillwater hang out. Then Karl goes swimming with Stillwater.

Each outing is accompanied by an appropriate short story. The first is about a man (panda) who gives a gift to a robber. Another is about a man who knows that luck is a many-faceted thing. The final story is about a monk carrying an unnecessary burden. I’ll never explain the stories as well as Muth tells them, so you should just read the book.

The illustrations of Stillwater and the children are beautifully rendered watercolors. The coloring is subtle with quite intricate line work for the drawings. The stories between the “real” story are printed on pastel backgrounds and illustrated with silhouettes so that they have a clearly different look from the rest of the book.

When you’re finished you should also check out the afterward which explains the underlying philosophy for each story. (Muth has a lot of Buddhist/Taoist influences.)

This is a great book to read with older children because even if they don’t get the philosophy, the stories are approachable and they’ll get something from it. (Even youngsters will enjoy the pictures.) It’s a great introduction to philosophy, a fact that becomes clear after reading the afterward, for “students” of any age. Muth does an admirable job creating a picture book that children and grownups can enjoy together.