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Someday My Printz Will Come
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Drowned Cities

The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi
Little, Brown, May, 2012
Reviewed from final copy

So you know that Ship Breaker was the winner the year I served on the RealPrintz committee, right? And I can be a mature blogger — mature enough to admit that I wonder if my affection for “my” winner skews my reading of Ship Breaker’s companion book, The Drowned Cities. I know I’m not alone: four starred reviews, nice write ups in the lots of different newspapers…this is a book that’s getting a lot of love from a lot of people. It’s about to get some more love from me.

Although it’s set in the same world as Bacigalupi’s first foray into YA, The Drowned Cities presents an almost entirely new cast of characters (Except! Tool returns! Tool!). Mahlia and Mouse provide the narrative’s two main perspectives; they are orphans of war (“war maggots”), victims of the rising water levels and warring factions that have swallowed the east coast of what was the United States. We also spend some time with Tool (Tool! OK, OK, I’ll stop squeeing now) and Ocho, a soldier in the United Patriot Front army. Dr Mahfouz is an important figure in the first third of the book, and he’s the first character to question what survival is worth.

But this is only one of the huge questions that The Drowned Cities asks. It also explores what it means to be human, our inescapable need to create packs — and why we have to leave them. Bacigalupi scrutinizes humanity’s tendency to act monstrously, our insistence that we are civilized even when the evidence shows otherwise. He populates the book with clashing pairs: Peacekeepers vs bands of soldiers; Peacekeepers vs Drowned Cities dwellers; nature vs nurture; life vs death; strategy vs emotion; people vs animals. Characters, too, are shown to be contrasting pairs, and sometimes split inside themselves: Mahlia vs Mouse; Tool vs Dr Mahfouz;  Mouse vs Ghost. The careful pairings demonstrate that ultimately, in this brutal world, many of these differences are superficial. Peacekeepers come and go; the UPF holds power and then is knocked down; Army of God retakes the Drowned Cities from the UPF but nothing really changes. Dr Mahfouz wants to talk about the interconnectedness of all decisions and moments; Tool strategically chooses the path of survival — and both of these ethical stances illustrate that our creation of self is constantly happening. Our identities are stories we tell ourselves to explain the situations we find ourselves in. Mouse is Mouse, loyal and sweet…until he becomes Ghost because he has been pushed to an extreme.

The Drowned Cities is grim — dark, violent, and angry — and I appreciated that it pulled no punches. We are reading a story of terror, war, and death — and seeing what happens to a person growing up inside that chaos, what a civilization crumbling alongside that process looks like. Bacigalupi looks at complicity on macro and micro scales. If an individual’s identity is so fluid, chosen each minute, then the process can scale up; it’s fractal. Each moment of the narrative is one where characters face major ethical choices, where they must decide who they are. And when enough people face enough extreme choices — and choose survival over loyalty — the world descends into chaos. In a world where survival is bought by burning books, other works of art, and medicine — where civilization is literally burning itself to survive — the line “the Drowned Cities ate its children” is chillingly accurate. We are reading the story of two teens who realize “I’m dead already.” It’s pretty amazing that there are any moments of hope and light in the narrative.  Because these moments are small — and precisely timed — they don’t feel unearned or out of place. The moments where characters are able to chose loyalty, to not worry about mere survival, are rare and incredibly powerful.

For all of the action and mayhem, this is a book with strong characterization. Mahlia and Mouse are complicated, interesting. Even when they made brutal choices, they had my sympathy. Ocho, with less page-time, came off less nuanced, although I still felt empathy for him. Sometimes, though, the dialogue is heavy-handed and characterization suffers; Mahfouz is a little preachy and Tool is actually a little speechy (yes, I still love him. He is an augmented killing machine. I always love the more-human-than-humans monster, remember?).

The action scenes are generally top-notch — beautifully written, intense and taut. But a few times too often, after a fight scene, a character will appear dead and then not actually be dead. The not-dead-yet trick feels cheap and gimmicky compared to the rest of the novel and it happens often enough to stand out. There’s enough suspense in the action and in the huge ethical dilemmas these characters face throughout the story.

I haven’t even mentioned the detailed world building, the powerful metaphors (every character is scarred physically. And Tool…did I mention Tool? He’s as much a metaphor as he is a character), the ambiguous but hopeful ending, the dramatic reveal of the Drowned Cities’ Accelerated Age identity, the careful pacing and tight plotting… I could go on, but let me sum up: I think this is a strong read. It’s not perfect, but the flaws I’ve come up with are pretty minor.

I suspect that it’s time for some other voices — maybe some voices who don’t have the emotional baggage I have. What do you guys think? Will Bacigalupi do it again?

About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.


  1. I am a huge fan of this book as well. It might be the best YA title I’ve read this year. But I do wonder if it’s reasonable to expect Bacigalupi to win again…

  2. I actually liked this one WAY more than I liked Ship Breaker, for two reasons: 1) it was consistent about what kind of book it was, and didn’t randomly go “And now I will be a swashbuckling pirate adventure!” or the like; 2) it didn’t try to have minor characters, so I couldn’t be annoyed by underdeveloped minor characters.

    Which left all the room open for the stuff Bacigalupi does really well: well-developed realistic major characters and really good worldbuilding. It didn’t feel heavy-handed, despite dealing with topics that would be really easy to heavy-hand, and it hit a really good level with the violence, where it was omnipresent and the horror was apparent, but (for me, at least) it wasn’t overwhelming and sick-making.

    Not in my Personal Top 6 for the year, but I was quite impressed.

  3. I’m actually debating using my official Pyrite nomination on this one. But I find it interesting, Miriam, that you liked this better than Ship Breaker because I felt exactly opposite: I liked Ship Breaker so much (and enjoyed much more than Drowned Cities) because I felt it balanced adventure/plot aspects with deep themes making it thought provoking, but not depressing. While I appreciate the world building and characters in this one, I found it really hard to read because it was so unrelentingly bleak. As I said in my Goodreads review, perhaps child soldiers just bother me as a reader more than insanely dangerous child labor. I know my enjoyment is not a Printz criteria, but when I struggle with books like this (or The Children and the Wolves), I find myself intensely second-guessing my judgement – am I championing it because I’m trying to overcome my bias? Here I find myself also struggling because my first instinct is to compare it to Ship Breaker (one of my favorite books of recent memory) when it’s not competing against Ship Breaker but against this year’s titles. I know neither of these are new problems – we’ve discussed them both here at the blog and I’m sure they’ve been discussed on awards committees through the years. I would also like to join Sarah in going TOOL!! because he’s such a great character. If Bacigalupi continues with this future world, I hope we see him again.

    I’m playing a waiting game on the nominations, I must admit. A couple of contenders for my nomination have been brought up by other people (Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone; Seraphina), so I keep hoping someone will hop in there and narrow down the few I have left (Grave Mercy, Drowned Cities, The Children and the Wolves).

  4. I read this book a few months ago, and it still ranks very high in my books for this year. I too was squeeing inside over Tool. One of the best characters I’ve run across in YA fiction. I think this book has a good chance, unless the committee shies away from awarding the same author so close together…

  5. Hank Weddingham says

    It’s interesting that you were on the committee that chose Ship Breaker. This blog often talks about books that are flawed or fail to live up to expectations, and I can’t think of a novel in 2011 that was as structurally flawed and failed to live up to the promise of its first chapter than that one. The first chapter was marvelous. The first quarter was excellent, but from the time he left on the train, the story went downhill, turning into a pedestrian swashbuckle that left the setting and themes started in the first chapter unexplored. There were better books last year.

  6. I agree with everything Sarah said about the strengths, but this did have some significant plot weaknesses. First, having not read Ship Breaker, I was left in the dark on many of the little intricacies of this world. I do not think that, judged on its own, the world-building is that great. Second, the last twenty pages were pretty messy. I didn’t buy how easy it was. After 400 pages of showing how difficult this world was, Bacigulapi threw that careful construction away to have a glimmer of hope at the ending. (Which as a reader, I liked, but as literature, it’s weak.) There is A LOT of good here, but there are significant flaws that hold up Drowned Cities’ chances at the gold, in my opinion.

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