Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book Review: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Back in the 1500s, Thomas More helped popularize the idea of utopia. This was the concept of a perfect society with no scarcity and ultimate peace. And it was frightening when we saw how much the utopians had to sacrifice in terms of personal liberties and choices. Paolo Bacigalupi in his works, The Windup GirlShip Breaker, and now, The Drowned Cities, shows us the opposite: a dystopia. He takes the present-day Earth and extrapolates what things might become: a bleak world of war, struggle, and scarcity.

We see in The Drowned Cities a familiar society focused in rooting out traitors and protecting the liberties for which it stands. This is home. And it is terrifying.

Overall Impression
This was an amazingly engaging read. I sped through it as fast as I could and enjoyed nearly every second of it. The story is relatively simple, however, so if you want a deep, convoluted plot this may not be for you. The thing that caught my attention, though, was the description of the world the characters inhabit and its deliberate, but eerie familiarity to our own.

The story in The Drowned Cities is only loosely connected to Ship Breaker. They share the world, albeit different parts of it, and one character. This novel focuses on the actions of Tool and Mahlia. The pace is fast and action packed; no time is wasted on spurious matters. This makes it a very quick read. Had I not been traveling and busy with work, I'm sure I could have finished it in a matter of days.

My only disappointment with this book, however, comes here as the plot is very simple: the girl Mahlia sets out to rescue her friend with the help of Tool. The first arc of the story establishes the characters and meets them up, the second has them travelling to the Drowned Cities, and the final arc is the big rescue part. That's not to say that the story is entirely predictable, though. There are plenty of surprises along the way, but this is not a grand epic story like most of the fantasy books I read.

As previously mentioned, the story focuses on Mahlia and Tool, with some important roles played by Mouse and Ocho. Mahlia is a castoff, a half-Chinese girl left behind when the Chinese peacekeeping forces left the Drowned Cities. Castoffs are hated as they remind everyone of the Chinese occupation for over a decade. When captured a long time ago by Army of God forces, they cut off her arm before she could escape. A cripple and a castoff, she is despised by the people of her town and has led a rough life.

Tool we saw previously in Ship Breaker. He is a half-man, a genetically engineered warrior combining the DNA of several predators into a human form. He can be ruthless and vicious, but he is at peace with who he is and what he was made for. I was most interested to see his development through the story. He is almost too powerful for the setting, yet the author tries to keep the focus on the more human characters of Mahlia and Mouse.

Setting / World Building
This is, or at least feels like, the same world as Bacigalupi's prior novels, however, the novel is set in the area of the Drowned Cities. To my knowledge, no Accelerated Age (ie, our present time) names for the Drowned Cities are given, but it is clear where the action takes place. This is a world after peak oil, with food and material shortages, and the effects of global warming. The Drowned Cities are aptly named: they are the flooded remnants of the area around Washington, DC. The jungle and swamps have begun to take back this place, but fractured armies battle constantly to rid the country of the traitors (ie, the other armies) and bring the country back to its former glory. With references to Deepwater christians, Rust Saints, the United Patriot Front, and many others, we can see an eerie similarity with present day America, which Bacigalupi exploits flawlessly.

Final Thoughts
I highly recommend this book. Despite the connection between it and Ship Breaker  it can be read on its own. You may not catch all the references they give in that case, but then again I don't think a single reading of any of the prior books does that either. You simply get a tiny glimpse into his world for each book. The story is rather simple, but it is driven by the characters and setting.

Still not convinced? Then check out the really cool book trailer produced for The Drowned Cities:

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