Paolo Bacigalupi’s debut YA novel (and Printz Award winner) Ship Breaker imagined a future America dependent on scavengers for survival after global warming and peak oil have irrevocably altered the landscape. The Drowned Cities is not a sequel per se, but a “companion” volume packed with new thrills and provocations.
After 10 years, China has given up trying to negotiate peace among the warring factions in the United States, pulled up stakes and gone home. The remaining Americans are engrossed in infighting and the recruitment of children to serve as soldiers: a sure ticket to a brutal and short life, but for many kids the only choice available.
Refugees Mahlia and Mouse have managed to escape this fate, until they find a bioengineered, half-human fighting creature named Tool who was wounded and left to die. Mahlia sees an opportunity to save Tool and “make him into her loyal fighting dog.” But Tool has fought for so long he’s begun to see the futility of battle, and may shift his loyalty at any time. When a crisis strikes, Mahlia must decide between Tool, who may be her ticket to safety, and Mouse, who once risked his own life to save hers.
The Drowned Cities is an adventure story, a thriller and a sharply drawn fable about the state of the world today. It succeeds handily on all three fronts. Bioengineered man-dog border guards may not be with us today, but child soldiers, sadly, are, and they become harder to ignore when they’re here at home.
Bacigalupi does a masterful job of letting the action propel the plot and the scenery tell the larger story. The White House is never identified by name but described so we can recognize it, despite the fact that half of it has been shelled to smithereens. K Street in Washington, D.C., is now the K Canal, winding through the ruins of a once-great city. The perception of foreign aid by those receiving it is captured here as well: “Mahlia could imagine all those Chinese people in their far-off country donating to the war victims of the Drowned Cities. . . . All of them rich enough to meddle where they didn’t belong.”
The Drowned Cities is dark, and the violence is unrelenting, but Bacigalupi allows for a hopeful conclusion—possibly the riskiest move in this entirely cutting-edge novel.