Novel: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi revisits the memorable world of Ship Breaker in The Drowned Cities (2012), a companion novel featuring new characters and situations but the same gritty prose and convincing worldbuilding. Tool, the augmented half-man, half-animal from Ship Breaker, is a genetically programmed soldier designed to be the ultimate warbeast. When Tool escapes slavery into the wilds of the fractured American south, he stumbles into the lives of Mahlia and Mouse, a pair of tough young survivors who’ve found a tenuous but stable existence as the charges of an idealistic doctor. Tool’s arrival, however, brings war to the region, an incursion that utterly disrupts their lives and pits them against a violent faction of vicious warboys.

Ship Breaker set the bar pretty bloody high, so it’s unsurprising to find that The Drowned Cities doesn’t quite clear it. All this means is that it’s merely a good book, rather than a great one: a well written, violent adventure. It succeeds quite well as an extended metaphor, literalizing the ideological squabbles and political conflicts of the US into actual warfare, against a dark, dystopic backdrop. It’s got solid, brutal prose and strong characters, and it kept me interested. That said, this is the first time the relentless bleakness of Bacigalupi’s vision started to wear on me. This is no hardscrabble world he depicts; it’s very nearly an impossible-scrabble world. The story redeems the viciousness with moments of hope for the characters, but at some point I think turning the awful “up to eleven” so consistently makes it difficult, at times, to feel the stakes. So, it rather lacks the magic of Ship Breaker, and might be too dark for many readers, even as it’s a solid novel of dystopian SF with a deft political allegory at its core.

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