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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.
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