Book Review: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi


Last year I read, and thoroughly enjoyed Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel Ship Breaker. It set a new standard for YA Fiction for me, and raised the bar for my own writing.

The Drowned Cities is the second book set in the world we crawled into in Ship Breaker. Global warming has inundated the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. The cities are under water, and home to the militias that still fight to restore their version of America, though it’s unlikely any of them actually remember what America was.

In this world, every meal may be your last, and generosity expects quid pro quo. When Mahlia—a young girl, cast off by retreating Chinese Peace Keepers—and Mouse, a boy who survives on his own wits, stumble across a genetically engineered super-soldier, their generosity, and their will to survive, is put to the test.

This is one of those books that ends up in your jacket pocket when you take your kids somewhere, just in case you get a few seconds to read—you don’t want to leave it alone. At home, you plop yourself down in your favorite chair, and time just flies. It moves fast. Every character is perfect, but flawed in some way. The scenes are drawn with an artist’s brush, and the chapters shift points of view and flow into the next, until you suddenly find yourself done, and wishing for more.

While this is science fiction, numerous times during the book, I realized that many of the scenes were likely inspired by the evening news. You only have to look at recent events in Rwanda and Darfur to see the kind of horrors illustrated in The Drowned Cities. While you may personally believe that could never happen in America, Bacigalupi makes an excellent argument through his tale that the difference between places like Darfur and America could just be twenty or thirty extra meters of water. The only question is, how long would it take to descend into anarchy, not whether or not it could happen.

If I have any criticism of the book, it’s a nitpicky one. Since I just finished back-to-back edits of my books, looking for passive verbs, every one of them now jumps out at me, and there were a few in this novel. But I also began to wonder if eliminating all passive sentences isn’t overkill. I mean, while Strunk and White say to cut and chop them all out, it is a valid sentence structure. Should it set off the alarm klaxons it does for me, or am I just being over sensitive?

Overall though, this was a great book. If you love reading YA Fiction or Post-Apocalyptic Fiction or Science Fiction, I think you’ll love The Drowned Cities.

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