A review of The Drowned Cities, by Paolo Bacigalupi
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
The time is the not-too-distant future, about a century from now. The rising seas have proven to be the most drastic effect of runaway global climate change, with most of the world’s coastal cities now under water up to at least the second story of the towers that dominate them.
The action takes place in and around the ruins of Washington, DC, now part of the Drowned Cities that lie on the mid-Atlantic and southeast coasts of what used to be the United States of America. Everywhere in the region, private armies roam about in constant warfare with one another, their ranks dominated by the child soldiers they have forcibly recruited from the area’s surviving population. In the eye-for-an-eye society that has emerged, few live to adulthood.
Most of the world’s population ekes out a primitive living in places such as this. Only the relative few who live within the confines of Island Shanghai, Beijing, Seascape Boston, and a few other cities continue to flourish behind sea-walls, protected from invasion by the genetically enhanced armies ranged around them.
Years ago, the people of China sent a peacekeeping force to the Drowned Cities to forge peace among the warlords’ contending armies. The effort failed. Left behind when the peacekeepers evacuated Washington, DC, was Mahlia, the teenage daughter of a Chinese general and a local woman — a “half-breed,” a “castoff,” a “war maggot.” This is Mahlia’s story.
Not long after her father abandons her and her mother, Mahlia is set upon by soldiers from the Army of God and, simply because she is who she is, her right hand is cut off. A younger boy, hiding nearby, creates enough of a distraction to allow her to escape with her left hand intact. She calls the boy Mouse.
Together, Mahlia and Mouse encounter one of the “half-men” — a monstrous, bioengineered soldier named Tool, a blend of superior human intelligence and body shape with the face of a dog and the strength, speed, cunning, and ruthlessness of the world’s most able predators. Their meeting proves fateful, and is the pivot on which the plot turns in this beautifully written and fully realized post-apocalyptic novel.
Marketed as a book for young readers, The Drowned Cities is science fiction at its best for fans of any age. The only way in which this novel falls short through adult eyes is that it avoids obvious references to sex. (Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.)
In a relatively short writing career to date, with just five published books to his name at age 40, Paolo Bacigalupi has won every major award in the science fiction field and was a Finalist for a National Book Award. His is an extraordinary talent, with great promise for many more enthralling stories to come.