The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Complex.  Important.  Staggering.

Is how I would describe Drowned Cities, a companion novel to Bacigalupi’s earlier Ship Breaker.  Not a strict sequel, Drowned Cities follows Tool, the fearsome and compelling man/dog/hyena/tiger hybrid we met in Ship Breaker, as well as two new young characters: Mahlia and Mouse.

When I reflect on it, I think I liked Drowned Cities even more than the first in this series.  Like Ship Breaker, it encompasses a marvellously complete and complex world – the detail is incredible, and somehow Bacigalupi makes his novel feel rooted in a place, but manages to hint that there are equally rooted, complex places throughout his futuristic world.  Set after the flood/global economic collapse/environmental disasters, these books traverse a nightmarish future United States.  Drowned Cities in fact brings us to the capital itself, Washington DC – now part jungle, swamp, war zone, and scrap heap.  Mahia and Mouse are two “war maggots” – refugees that have managed to escape the violence and have been taken in by a kind-hearted doctor living in one of the villages in the Drowned Cities area.  Mahia is a half-breed – her father was part of the Chinese peacekeeping force sent to tame the Drowned Cities and bring an end to the violence.  The Chinese peacekeepers have left, but their “castoffs” like Mahia were left behind, though few have survived the wrath of the Drowned Cities residents looking for revenge on their former occupiers.  Left with only one hand, Mahia is a survivor.  When she happens upon Tool – almost dead after an epic battle with a swamp monster on top of an escape from prison – Mahia sees an opportunity.  She nurses the monstrous creature back to life and then asks his assistance in leaving the Drowned Cities.  Though he has no master (unlike the rest of his kind), Tool agrees to help her escape the war zone and the soldiers who continue to hunt him.  However, when her best friend Mouse is captured and recruited by these boy soldiers, Mahia has to decide whether to risk everything and follow him into the heart of the Drowned Cities and enemy territory – or whether to take her chances with Tool and flee.

What I remembered from the first book was the incredible detail and complex world.  These things also struck me in Drowned Cities, but so did the characters and the almost non-stop action driving the plot forward.  Not only is the world believable – the characters and their decisions are real also.  Again, even more than in Ship Breaker, I found myself making comparisons with our own world: the factional warfare fought for no end but the glory of self-appointed “generals,” along with the unyielding hostility to occupiers promising to do good, struck me as familiar from Afghanistan, Iraq, and just about any other country the world has tried to interfere in.  The recruitment of boy soldiers comes straight out of accounts I have read of civil wars in Africa, and the jingoism and xenophobia permeating the society seems reminiscent of areas of present-day America (and many other parts of the world).  As is the case with all great science fiction, Drowned Cities reflects (and requires one to reflect) on our world: a world where privileged elites are separated from those they exploit, a world where people are too busy fighting to survive to help one another.

Though the main characters of these novels chose to act decently when pushed to the limit, most of the population of Bacigalupi’s world is predatory and violent in response to a predatory and violent world.  Tool himself is warfare personified – the most dangerous and destructive tendencies of humanity given life – and even this biological killing machine manages to show more humanity than those surrounding him.  True to his dark vision, Bacigalupi does not give us any easy escapes from the world he envisions.  Although he allows some to leave Drowned Cities, the place itself persists, a mire of death and destruction with no safe havens.  Even more so than Hunger Games and the like, Ship Breaker and Drowned Cities send a shiver up my spine because of its unconquerable reality.  If you are working your way through the mass of dystopias currently available, please don’t miss these startling and important contributions.

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Filed under Book Review, Books I've Enjoyed, Dystopias, Young Adult books

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