Bookphile's Reviews > The Drowned Cities

The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi
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Jul 13, 12

Read from June 28 to July 03, 2012

I feel like Tool jumped out of the book and ripped me wide open. This is definitely not the book to reach for if you want a light beach read, but it is a devastating, amazing work. More complete review to follow when I've recovered from it a bit.

Full review:

The Drowned Cities is the kind of book that feels like it's beating you senseless while you're reading it. It pummels you and, just as you think you might be able to take a breath, it's back and pummeling you again. Obviously, this is not an easy read, but this is an incredibly deep book that deals with some extremely important issues that most of us in the Western world like to just ignore. As Bacigalupi shows us in this novel, we can't ignore them. We can't afford complacency. There will be some spoilers in this review.

When I first heard this book wouldn't pick up with the story of Nailer, I was disappointed. I really loved Ship Breaker because it was not only filled with exciting action, it was also extremely well written. However, that book is far different from this one, and not just because this book deals with a different cast of characters, with the exception of Tool. It's more that, in this book, the action takes a backseat and Bacigalupi's prodigious talents as a writer are the focus. Yes, there is action in this book, but it's not the sort of action-flick action that was more present in Ship Breaker. Instead, the action in this book is the tide against which the characters are fighting. Though the characters were fantastic in Ship Breaker, this book, above all else, is a book about its characters. You are drawn along with them, you experience their tragedies and their fears in a way that is so visceral it's difficult to explain. When I read this book, I really felt like a spectator, watching in horror as the story unfolded before me.

One of the biggest, most disturbing themes in this novel is that of survival and what it means to be a survivor. Whenever the book is told through Mahlia's eyes, this is the question the readers must confront. Like Mahlia, I was very conflicted. I could see where she was coming from, and I agreed with her philosophy--but then, before I could get comfortable, Bacigalupi amped up the discomfort. Mahlia would start thinking about the doctor, about the soldier boys and, suddenly, things were far less clear than they had seemed just a few pages before. This is the real strength of the novel. It forces the reader to see that things are rarely cut and dried. Sometimes there are obvious good guys and obvious bad guys but, for the most part, people are just trying to survive. It's extremely uncomfortable to take a good, hard look at this and to try to figure out what the moral solution is--if one even exists in the first place. The doctor may seem like a foolish idealist while Mahlia is more of a practical realist, but what does that mean for the world at large? What does it mean when your focus in life narrows down to just making it from one way to the next? What actions would you find yourself excusing in that circumstance?

This is not the only difficult issue in the book, though. Bacigalupi also tackles the question of war and child soldiers and the atrocities inherent in using kids to wage war. When reading from Mahlia's perspective, it's easy to see these "soldier boys" as evil, but when the story shifts to telling their side, it's not so easy to dismiss them this way. Do you blame the boys for their acts or do you blame the circumstances that have driven the boys to act as they do? I cannot stress enough how important this issue is. Though The Drowned Cities is set in a post-apocalyptic America, child soldiers have been widely used throughout history and, in fact, are being used as I type this. Yet this is a problem that is so devastating and disturbing, one that is so difficult to solve, that most people either willfully ignore it or are ignorant of it because there's so little coverage of it in our media.

What has become obvious to me in reading two of Bacigalupi's works is that he is an author who likes to pose the big questions, one who wants to force his readers to really think, and I admire him for this. What he has done here is no easy task. It takes a lot of skill to take such a violent, disturbing story and to write it from such a variety of perspectives without resorting to trite classifications of who's bad and who's good. Instead, what Bacigalupi does is show that people are often a victim of their circumstances, and that their motives may not be as cut and dried as they seem when viewed from the outside. This is a book that needs to be read, discussed, and reflected on for a very long time. I have no doubt that this is a book that, years from now, I will still be thinking about and struggling with.
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Reading Progress

06/29/2012
25.0% "This book is incredibly bleak and violent so far. What I find really disturbing are the soldier boys because that aspect isn't so different from today's world. Bacigalupi is such an amazing writer."
06/29/2012
42.0% "This book poses some really interesting moral questions about survival versus helping others. This is one thing I really like about his writing, that the subjects he covers area always full of shades of gray."
07/01/2012
59.0% "This book beats you over the head with thorny moral issues--and that is not a complaint. It's a compelling read, but it's also challenging because I constantly find myself trying to figure out which character I agree with the most. Well done, Bacigalupi. You excel at painting shades of gray."

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