Post-apocalyptic America, civil war, and out of body experiences? All in this review!
So, I usually start these reviews with an overly long-winded summary of the book’s plot. In this case though, I don’t trust myself. By that, I mean if I were to try to summarize The Drowned Cities, it’d end up at three thousand words, not counting tangents. To avoid this, I am going to use the far more eloquent blurb that the book supplies and elaborate as necessary. Call it lazy, but I think it’s best for us all.
“In a dark future America where violence, terror, and grief touch everyone, young refugees Mahlia and Mouse have managed to leave behind the war-torn land of the Drowned Cities by escaping into the jungle outskirts. But when they discover a wounded half-man- a bioengineered war beast named Tool- who is being hunted by a vengeful band of soldiers, their fragile existence quickly collapses. One is taken prisoner by merciless soldier boys, and the other is faced with an impossible decision: Risk everything to save a friend, or flee to a place where freedom might finally be possible.”
Problem with the blurb is that it doesn’t get close to giving the setting or plot justice. There has to be sacrifices though, to get away from having pages explaining every minuscule detail, doesn’t there?
Before I start singing praises, I should mention that The Drowned Cities is a companion novel to Ship Breaker. I read Ship Breaker two or three years ago, or hundreds of books earlier, so my memories of it are hazy at best. Because of this, I can’t comment on how faithful they are to each other, if one is better written than the other, or any other comparison between the two. What I am willing to say though, is that even without having previous knowledge of the world, I was able to follow along without struggle. With that out of the way, time to heap praises upon the shoulders of The Drowned Cities.
I think this book marked the beginning of a wonderful, joyous mental break. For most of my trip through, I couldn’t tell whether I was reading a book or watching a movie. I stopped realizing that I was turning pages; instead I became aware of bird song and bullets. It would be hours later before I resurfaced, greeted by stark reality, filled with a sense of melancholy and wonderment. My bare white walls were lackluster compared to the vivid greens of the Drowned Cities.
To anyone who doesn’t read, or to someone who hasn’t read a truly fantastic novel, this probably sounds incredibly nerdy. But I mean it when I say that this book has achieved the same visual feast that you expect with a movie. Or maybe I’m insane.
Paola didn’t just bring life to a vibrant world, but a fascinating one- a world that punishes the idealistic and righteous. Amongst the Drowned Cities warring factions, there isn’t a single soul that hasn’t been touched by war, who doesn’t fear it every waking hour. Never knowing if your children will be recruited by soldier boys, whether these boys will set flame to your village or simply slaughter you. There’s this magnificent juxtaposition of the beauty of the Drowned Cities and the violence that pervades it.
A problem I had setting-wise was that there wasn’t quite enough. While there are mentions of tons of different factions and places beyond the Drowned Cities, that really help make the world feel large and real, we don’t actually get to see much of it. I am the type of person who wants fifty pages dedicated to each individual religion, which includes burial rites, marriage ceremonies, and where the forks go at a fancy meal. I’ll have to hope that Paolo writes more books in this universe so he continues drip feeding me lore.
While I am a world and plot focused reader, with my anti-social tendencies giving characters a secondary position, the characters of The Drowned Cities struck me. Mahlia, Mouse, Tool, and the rest of the cast were all fascinating. I didn’t feel like I’d read them a hundred times before. In my opinion, they would be more than strong enough to carry a series. I mean, if Bella and Edward could spawn such monolithic success, then this should be a piece of cake. (Yeah, I know. Low hanging fruit.)
Through the changing points of view, we get to see the relationships between characters in a very fascinating way. The most interesting amongst these is Ocho’s perspective. Ocho is one of the “bad guys”, so to see the conflict from his perspective fleshes it out, along with preventing a 2-D antagonist, something that too many authors do. This is how changing points of view should be implemented. When it isn’t, I find that it can slow down a novel and leave it feeling choppy.
If I were to have one complaint about the characters, it’s that they didn’t always make the more interesting choice. If I were to be less politically correct about that, I’d say that they weren’t always evil tyrants who have no regard for friendship. For whatever reason, when I read, I become a TERRIBLE person who wants nothing more than to see the world burn and puppies starved. So, the validity of this complaint is just about zero, considering that I can’t expect an author to satisfy my evil needs.
When it came to pacing, an integral part of a good book, The Drowned Cities nailed it. I never felt that I was wading through a sea of molasses or that it was written by a young child with ADHD. In fact, it felt longer than it actually was in the best way possible. Two-hundred pages in and the amount of enjoyment I had was comparable to a book of at least twice that length. I swear, Paola Bacigulupi is the Midas of books, just without the sad stuff and the moral lessons.
Is it bad that my chief problem with this book is something the book got right? Something that is spawned from my own density rather than anything else? Probably. But it’s true; my largest problem with this fantastic piece of writing is that I think I missed some of the subtlety that it had to offer. I would catch fleeting glimpses of depth and metaphor and then it would crumble around me. I’m not the type to read into things, to make statements like, “The comparison between the metaphysical existence of life and the state of the Nicaraguan politics was just beautiful.” Instead, I’m the one going, “I liked the explosions.” Getting a glimpse of a higher plane of thinking, only to have it taken away created a small seed of resentment. And that is obviously the book’s fault.
The Drowned Cities has been one of the best books I’ve ever read. If you have even a passing interest in the sci-fi genre then I implore you, please read this book. And please, keep an eye out for anything else Paolo Bacigalupi ever puts out, because if it even gets close to being as intriguing as this piece of work, then it is more than worth your time, and possibly your dollar. I know I will buy anything he ever writes, and plan on picking up Ship Breaker as soon as I can.