The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

waterDespite the violence, I loved this book. Here’s why.

The Water Knife is set in the near future, in a time when drought in the Western U.S. means that some cities have to dry up in order for others to survive. There’s sort of a mix of lawlessness and martial law, which means basically, those with the most guns have the water.

Sweat was a body’s history, compressed into jewels, beaded on the brow, staining shirts with salt. It told you everything about how a person had ended up in the right place at the wrong time, and whether they would survive another day.

The book is set primarily in Phoenix, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada. Angel Velasquez is a water knife, working for Catherine Case, the woman who runs Las Vegas. A water knife is someone who basically cuts off other towns from their water supply. He’s essentially the worst kind of thug. Except you sort of like him.

Lucy is a journalist struggling to expose corruption in Phoenix. Life is harsh and the limited water supply means organized crime runs everything. Water is strictly rationed, bartered, and killed for. Lucy knows there are things she’s not supposed to report on, and she’s willing to live with that until a friend is brutally killed because he knew something he shouldn’t have. Unable to look away, Lucy starts digging.

She’d been tracking Phoenix residents, their hashtags and commentaries, for years. A proxy map for the city’s implosion. Virtual echoes of a physical disaster.   In her own mind she imagined Phoenix as a sinkhole, sucking everything down – buildings, lives, streets, history – all of it tipping and spilling into the gaping maw of disaster – sand, slumped saguaros, subdivisions – all of it going down.

And Lucy, circling the edge of the hole, documenting.

Our third character is Maria, a young woman who is trying to get by without resorting to prostitution and drugs. Unfortunately, she comes up with a water-selling scheme that earns her some money and lands her in trouble.

These three characters collide in a story that’s part mystery, part thriller, and part science fiction. I loved the characters and the story was riveting. And what I really liked was the politics and science around water management. We can see that someday soon, science will be able to solve some of our water problems. Just not all of them, and not for everyone.

Of course this is fiction, but as someone who spent the first half of my life in the Southwest, there’s a ring of truth to it. If today’s news about California isn’t making you nervous yet, read this book. In this book, water and the desert are characters much more powerful than anyone else.

Yes, there is violence. I don’t mind gun and explosion violence as much as I mind torture, but this book had all of the above. There were a few places in this book where I wanted to close my eyes – something I frequently do in movies but it doesn’t work so well in books. Still, I’m glad that didn’t stop me from reading. There’s a power and elegance in the way Bacigalupi writes about really ugly things.

And then she woke fully, and it wasn’t rain caressing the windows of her home but dust, and the weight of her life came crushing down on her once again. She lay still in bed, trembling with the loss of the dream. Blotting away tears.

Sand slushed against the glass, a steady etching.

I haven’t read Bacigalupi’s critically-acclaimed The Wind-up Girl, but I’ve really enjoyed his short stories and young adult novels Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities. This book is brutal, and I’m not going to tell you it ends happily ever after.  But I definitely recommend it.

Note: I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley and publisher Knopf Doubleday, in exchange for an honest review. This book publishes on May 26, 2015.

  7 comments for “The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

  1. May 14, 2015 at 8:52 am

    This sounds good although the violence might be hard for me so i appreciate the warning

  2. May 16, 2015 at 12:00 am

    CurlyGeek you say ”These three characters collide in a story that’s part mystery, part thriller, and part science fiction. ” PART SCI FI? what part is even remotely sci fi.? can u explain iMORe why you feel this book is even PARt sci fi. there is no sci fi in it at all. it is all CLI Fi google it

    • May 27, 2015 at 9:47 pm

      @Dan Bloom
      …Just because it fits “Clifi” (which is less an established genre and more an example of how we portmanteau far too much these days), does not mean it is not science fiction. Science fiction is “fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes.” The book is in the future, has major social and environmental changes, and presumably some technological advances.
      Plus, Amazon is selling it under scifi. Bam.
      So… chill.
      Get it? Chill?

      Anyway… really liked The Wind-up Girl, excited to check this out.

  3. May 25, 2015 at 6:04 pm

    I loved THE SHIP BUILDER, so I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy this one. Bacigalupi is a fantastic writer!

  4. June 2, 2015 at 5:57 pm

    I have this one from Netgalley, I didn’t realise it was so violent. I’m looking forward to it though, I’ve never read any of Bacigalupi’s work despite having heard nothing but praise.

    • June 2, 2015 at 10:24 pm

      Well, it could be it bothered me more than it will you… but at any rate it’s a great book, and I’ve liked everything I’ve read from Bacigalupi.

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