Paolo Bacigalupi first made a name for himself with his short fiction, and achieved more widespread acclaim with his first novel, The Windup Girl (2009). He's now once again proven himself with The Drowned Cities, the sequel to his young adult novel, Ship Breaker (2010). Here, in a post-apocalyptic America, Bacigalupi raises the stakes significantly with what could very well be his darkest novel yet.
The Drowned Cities follows a pair of orphans: Mahlia and Mouse, who live from day to day in a village not far from the remains of Washington DC, the so called Drowned Cities. Mouse is the son of a farmer whose family was murdered by one of the many factions of militants in the region, while Mahlia is the daughter of a Chinese soldier, a castoff who is looked upon with suspicion because of her ancestry. The pair come across a wounded war beast, Tool, a genetically engineered soldier who appeared in Ship Breaker, following his escape from his imprisonment at the hands of the United Patriot Front, one of numerous factions vying for control of the country. Close behind Tool, the UPF hope to use the war beast as a weapon against their enemies in the ruins of Washington. When Mahlia and Mouse are separated and he is forcibly recruited into the ranks of the UPF, Mahlia recruits Tool's skills to follow and rescue her friend.
The book is a grim one: people are lit on fire, children in competing paramilitary groups gun one another down, all while a massive war beast is hunted down and wounded in the dramatic and violent opening chapters:
Pain held no terror for him. Pain was, if not friend, then family, something he had grown up with in his crèche, learning to respect but never yield to. Pain was simply a message, telling him which limbs he could still use to slaughter his enemies, how far he could still run, and what his changes were in the next battle.
Behind him, the hounds began to bay, picking up his scent. (p. 10)
Bacigalupi doesn't play up the gore, but it's certainly one of the more gruesome YA novels I've come across. Young adult fiction is at its best when the characters are strained and stressed, but this is a book that I'd recommend to a slightly older audience than I would its predecessor.
Although The Drowned Cities takes place in the same world as Ship Breaker, it stands on its own, sharing only a few connections and characters. Tool, a bioengineered war beast, has become a central figure, joining a new cast to drive the story forward. In addition, Bacigalupi's future America is a character in its own right, a bleak vision of the future that carries over vivid detail from Ship Breaker. As the characters move to and fro across the broken landscape, we're treated to an excellent view of the former Maryland region: global climate change has raised sea levels and constant warfare has left the former cities battered and in ruins. The few people not involved in the fighting are attempting to stay alive with the few resources available to them and by dodging attention from the armed factions that rule the cities. While The Drowned Cities is not explicitly linked to The Windup Girl, I have little trouble imagining this story taking place within a shared world.
What works especially well is the way that Bacigalupi tells the larger story of his world through his characters' smaller stories. There's no prologue to start off the story; Bacigalupi simply starts the timer and everything jumps into high gear from the start. It's a bit confusing at first, because there's little context, but slowly, the background filters in and provides a rich, dense setting. The world of the novel is one of endless, and, by the story's start, purposeless war for control of the Drowned Cities. As Bacigalupi sends the main characters into this violent place, he uses their backgrounds as vehicles to highlight larger story arcs that catch the reader up on the preceding decades. Through Mahlia, we see how the Chinese came to occupy the nation's capitol and the impact that the occupation had on American society. Through Mouse, we see the cruelty of the armed factions and the lengths that political factions will go to. Through Tool, we see just how far people will tinker with generics to win a war. Bacigalupi never gives us more information than is necessary, and what impressed me the most was how the individual stories come together to paint a vivid and cynical picture of the future of the world.
The timing of this book is apt: published on the heels of a volatile political cycle, The Drowned Cities feels like Bacigalupi's most relevant book yet. This is a novel about a country divided by its extremes. There's literally no middle ground between fundamentalist powers: the Army of God, who seek a religious nation, and the United Patriot Front, who are looking for a constitutionally based one. Bacigalupi plays on the US's present ideological divide by taking its two sides to their extreme corners, and shows us that no matter what sides come out of our current political troubles, little good can come out of all-out war in a divided country. At the end of the day, however, both sides of the conflict are all but indistinguishable in their conduct, and it's clear that regardless of motivations, extremism simply makes the future darker.
The Drowned Cities is speculative young adult fiction at its absolute best, marrying an intense and relevant story with vivid characters. Post-Apocalyptic YA fiction is all the rage at the moment, with The Hunger Games in the forefront of the public’s attention, but Bacigalupi's twisted world would give Panem a real run for its money: it's YA fiction at the top of an author's game, and already, I’m waiting to see what else he can terrify me with.
Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He has written for such places as io9, Tor.com, SF Signal, Blastr, and Armchair General. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewLiptak or visit his blog at andrewliptak.wordpress.com.