The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Posted by John Brown on January 3rd, 2013

The Drowned Cities by Paolo BacigalupiI just finished The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi, and, holy cow, folks—this story rocked.

It’s set in the future in the area around Washington D.C. which is the titular drowned cities. They’re drowned because the climate has gotten warmer, the seas have risen, and D.C. is half under water, permananetly flooded. It’s more like Georgia or Florida—gators, kudzu, the works. But this is not another dumb book about global warming. If it were, I wouldn’t be writing this.

No, the United States has fallen apart. Up north there’s some alliance with money and power and the ability to keep those in the Drowned Cities out. South, who knows? West? Don’t know. But right around D.C. everything has gone to hell.

It’s like Mogadishu, Somalia in the 1990’s (Blackhawk Down) with warlords fighting each other, tearing the place apart.

It’s like Sierra Leone at the end of that decade with different factions butchering locals and forcing kids to fight as soldiers.

Except instead of the U.S. or Europe or the U-freaking-N sending in peacekeepers to stabilize the situation, it’s China. And just like the U.S. in Somalia, the warlords send the Chinese peacekeepers packing. And so now it’s just chaos.

Talk about a setting for a story. But Bacigalupi doesn’t stop there. He adds in genetically modified creatures. He starts the book with one named Tool. A creature that’s got the DNA of humans, mastiffs, tigers, reptiles and who knows what else all combined to make him smarter and stronger than humans ever could be—a monster that’s the ultimate killer, the ultimate soldier, the ultimate war machine. One that was bred to submit to a master, but something went wrong with Tool. And he was able to break free of that bond.

Tool is trying to escape prison and death. But as mighty as he is, he’s weak and injured. And then two kids from a village run into him while in the jungle. He knows they’re going to reveal his whereabouts to the warlord searching for him. In his weakened state, Tool is only able to grab the small boy named Mouse.

Mahlia, the girl, promises to bring medicine if Tool will only spare the boy. He knows she’s lying.

And so starts a rich tale of the monster, the boy, and the girl: a tale that is filled with friendship, triumph, loss, heroism, cowardice, and earthy sci-fi coolness all set in the midst of a guerilla war. The beginning sucks you in. The ending leaves you breathless. Along the way you get to see into the character of all three plus some of the bad guys. In the end you get a story about sacrifice and love.

If you liked A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah’s memoir of his time as a child solider in Africa; if you liked The Hunger Games, and not primarily for the romance; if you like person in jeopardy fiction or war flicks where a small group has to fight for its life, I think you will love this book.

This is the second book set in the same world. The first was Ship Breaker. Tool, one of the most interesting characters I’ve come across, is in that one too. But you don’t need to read that to enjoy this. And I wouldn’t put this read off to do so. Go give The Drowned Cities a try. Three or four pages in, I suspect you’ll be completely lost in the wondrous tale.

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