Thursday, July 5, 2012

Review: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship Breaker, Book 2

Tags: YA, dystopian, war


War has ravaged what was previously the United States of America. Two friends and orphaned victims of the war, Mahlia and Mouse, struggle to be safe and to get out of the terrifying hands of the different political/military factions that are all too willing to pressure young "war maggots" to sign up for their cause, lives be damned. With the help of a scary half-man named Tool, a genetically modified superfighter, do Mahlia and Mouse stand a chance to escape to freedom?


This is very clearly one of those “it’s not you, it’s me” situations. Bacigalupi is a great writer. He can come up with a unique dystopian premise, lay it out in all its entirety, and still proceed to shock readers with the depth of emotions he can conjure up for the characters and their predicaments. A less squeamish reader would probably appreciate the brilliance and magnitude of this impressive story. But I squirm over stories about featuring war, violence, and heartless characters.

It is an intriguing feature of Ship Breaker, and now THE DROWNED CITIES, that I don't think readers are ever supposed to like the main characters very much. They're not lovable: a hard childhood has taught Mahlia to be humorless and untrusting, while Mouse, in comparison, is scrawny and cowardly. I guess we're supposed to empathize with the characters and their predicament: they are once-innocent victims of a depraved, dangerous, and corrupt society turned not-so-innocent from the hardships of life. But, as much as I admire Bacigalupi for what he's done, not yielding to literary conventions of having sympathetic main characters, well... that is a literary convention that I like in my books.

THE DROWNED CITIES moves at a slow pace, but is mesmerizing in terms of how it imagines the future. Unlike the majority of YA dystopias published these days, Bacigalupi's vision of the future unsettles and upsets me precisely because it forces us to admit that there are a lot of things wrong in our current world that could very well make the future what Bacigalupi imagines.

Is THE DROWNED CITIES amazing? Yes. Should people read it as an example of what a dystopian should be like, as well as to reflect on the many things we should address in our world in order to prevent such a future from happening? Yes. Did I like it? Not quite. But it's one of those cases where that's okay.

Cover discussion: Hmm. Not bad. I like the dystopian vision of a future Washington, DC--although I admit that when I was reading the book, I had no idea it was set in DC until more than halfway through the book. I'm a little confused about whether those eyes are supposed to belong to Mahlia, though. Do they...well, do they look Asian to you?

Little, Brown / May 1, 2012 / Hardcover / 448pp. / $17.99

e-galley received for review from publisher and NetGalley.


  1. I still need to read Shipbreaker. It's been sitting on my shelf awhile.

    I do like the subtle Washington Monument on the cover.

  2. Oh, wow. I did realise this one was due out. I loved Ship Breaker. i'm glad this one looks just as impressive!

  3. I really respect your ability to separate your personal reactions to a book and the quality therein. I agree that his characters are not incredibly likable, I sort of feel that our current culture has some weird fascination with unlikable characters--at least on Television (shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead are full of terrible people), and it seems like maybe that's leaked over a bit into the book world. I finished listening to Ship Breaker a few weeks ago, and am still processing my thoughts. I certainly didn't adore it the way many readers have, but like you, think the world building was amazing. I'll certainly be checking this one out!


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