Review of The Drowned Cities by Paulo Bacigalupi

I’ve become a big fan of Paulo Bacigalupi after reading his short stories and his first YA novel, Ship Breakers.  Bacigalupi is not only a great writer and world-builder, but like all good science fiction or dystopian fiction, he makes really compelling statements about the world we live in.

The Drowned Cities is no exception.  This is a book about two children, Mouse and Mahlia, who live on the edge of the war-torn Drowned Cities.  Mahlia is the daughter of a Chinese peacekeeper.  In this world, peacekeepers had been sent to control the Drowned Cities, but at some point they abandon the city, and when they leave the retribution is brutal.  Mahlia’s mother is violently murdered and Mahlia has her hand chopped off.   Her friend Mouse saved her life, and together they are fortunate to have been taken in by a kind doctor.  But in this savage and violent world, their life isn’t going to stay calm for very long.

While violent, Bacigalupi has created an incredible world, full of warring political factions, children trained as soldiers, and genetically enhanced creatures who are enslaved to the government as fighting machines.

Mahlia and Mouse, struggling to survive, run into Tool, a dog-man introduced in Bacigalupi’s earlier book, Ship Breakers.  Tool is an intelligent being bred and trained as a weapon of war.  He’s half man, half beast, with the sensory perception of a dog and incredible strength.  The dog-men are bred to be devoted to their masters, yet Tool somehow breaks away from a life of slavery and seeks his own path.

The setting of the Drowned Cities is based on Washington, DC, although I admit I didn’t pick up on that for most of the book.  Once you do, the parallels are really fascinating and make me want to read the book over again.

Bacigalupi’s writing is incredible, from the first sentences of the book.

Chains clanked in the darkness of the holding cells.

The reek of urine from the latrines and the miasma of sweat and fear twined with the sweet stench of rotting straw.  Water dripped, trickling down ancient marble work, blackening what was once fine with mosses and algae.

Humidity and heat.  The whiff of the sea, far off, a cruel, tormenting scent that told the prisoners they would never taste freedom again.  Sometimes a prisoner, a Deepwater Christian or a Rust Saint devotee, would call out, praying, but mostly the prisoners waited in silence, saving their energy.

The best thing about this book is that Bacigalupi really develops the characters and the friendship between them.  There is a devastating hopelessness to the lives of these two children, yet they continue to fight for each other.  Mahlia has learned at a very young age that the only way to survive is to put herself first – but she also has to learn that sometimes putting the people you love first is the only way you can live with yourself.

I’ve read a lot of young adult fiction recently that I found to be incredibly adult.  And not because of sexuality – I mean a combination of complexity, traumatic subject matter and violence that makes me wonder why we call these books YA.  What makes a book “young adult” fiction?  Is it when the main characters are young?  Does it have to do with length or complexity of the book?  I think I’ve decided it’s a marketing tool more than anything else.  And I’m not sure it matters.  But I have a very hard time calling this book YA.

I loved this book even though it was incredibly violent, and in a brutal, graphic way that really got to me.  Bacigalupi doesn’t write about death, he writes about torture and fear.  He makes you think about how innocent people can be turned into killers and how people lose their humanity.  But at the same time, he really takes you into the minds and hearts of his characters, and creates a vivid and terrifying future.

I highly recommend this book — although not so much for younger readers.

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