The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2012. Recommended for ages 14 and up.
The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi is an incredibly powerful book. In a future where rising sea levels have flooded Washington DC, faction politics has escalated to all out war. Mahlia and Mouse are refugees, called War Maggots, orphaned and made homeless by the violence. They have found temporary safety, protected by a doctor in village that has so far escaped the conflict. What security they have is threatened by their discovery of the severely wounded half-man, Tool. Tool is a bioengineered creature designed for one purpose – War. (Fans of Tool in Ship Breaker will be pleased to see the major role he plays in this story.)
Bacigalupi provides a harrowing window on what it is like to grow up in a war zone, where life is cheap. What is the good, the right choice when your options are survival or loyalty at the risk of your life? How are one’s perceptions of good and evil affected by prejudices? Have you really done any good if going back to help gets you killed before you can actually help anyone? Would it have been better to flee and survive in the hope that you can help others at another time? There are no easy answers.
None of the characters are completely likeable. In fact, they are all deeply flawed as a result of their circumstances. The doctor risks his life to protect the war maggots in his care and believes firmly in the path of nonviolence. Yet his compassion does not extend to treating the injured half-man who is, as his name suggests, a tool of war. Mouse is brave and loyal, but must join the ranks of the child soldiers or be killed. Mahlia is torn between the instinct to survive and the bonds of loyalty. In such a heart-breakingly ruined society, there can be no truly happy ending. Hope for escape is counterbalanced by the reality that everyone has damaged.
I can’t say that I enjoyed this book. How can one really enjoy a story about child soldiers fighting in a brutal civil war? But if I had to choose the best book I’ve read in the last year, this would probably be it. One reason this book has such an impact is that, aside from bio-engineered half-men, this story could be taking place even now in several parts of the world. But Bacigalupi brings it to life in a Washington, DC that is all too close home, making it feel as if it could happen to us. Nor does he sugar coat or gloss over the graphic violence of such a war. This is definitely a book aimed to an audience of high school age and older. I don’t promise that you will enjoy reading it. But I am pretty certain that reading it will have an impact on you.
See my earlier review of Ship Breaker here.