Ship Breaker: Gripping and grim YA

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsYA fantasy book reviews Paolo Bacigalupi Ship BreakerShip Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Nailer, a teenager, is one of many people who live in shantytowns along the US Gulf Coast, trying to eke out a dangerous living by working on disassembling crews, taking apart abandoned — and now obsolete — oil tankers. The work is dangerous, and taking risks is almost a necessity, because if the young workers don’t make quota, there are always other starving kids ready to take their jobs. Once the children get too big to crawl down the narrow ship ducts in search of copper wiring and other recyclable metals, there aren’t many options left to them… and if they’re not strong enough to do the heavier work, prostitution, crime or starvation are almost inevitable.

At the start of Ship Breaker, Nailer finds an undiscovered oil reservoir in the ship he is exploring — a lucky strike that would be sufficient to feed him and possibly provide escape from his abusive father. However, when he almost drowns in the oil, and one of his young crew mates finds him, she decides not to rescue him and leaves him to die so she can take advantage of his find. Even though Nailer manages to escape, this incident, set early in the novel, is a perfect introduction to the competing themes of “loyalty in the face of adversity” vs. “everyone for themselves” that run through Ship Breaker. After all, when Nailer finds a gorgeous clipper ship run aground during a hurricane, he faces the same choice: should he rescue the rich “swank” girl trapped inside, or let her die so the ship’s salvage can make him wealthy?

YA novels have changed just a tad, haven’t they? Yep, although you maybe wouldn’t guess so from the paragraphs above, Ship Breaker is actually the first Young Adult novel by Paolo Bacigalupi. You can draw a straight line right from the author’s excellent SF novel The Windup Girl, which also focused on the disastrous consequences of environmental change, to Ship Breaker. Even though the reading level is YA, and most of the main characters are teenagers, the grimness (not to mention the violence) is definitely straddling the border between adult and YA.

Be that as it may, Ship Breaker is a well-written, gripping SF novel. The story’s scope continually broadens, from Nailer’s initial find, to the arrival of the clipper, and ultimately to everything the ship’s owner stands for. Likewise, the dystopian future gradually becomes clearer as Nailer becomes more aware of, and eventually ventures into, the world outside his beach shantytown. As mentioned before, the theme of loyalty is approached from different directions. Just to name a few: Nailer’s relationship with his abusive and addicted father; the connections with and between his crew’s members; and maybe most interestingly, the concept of “halfmen,” genetically engineered to be loyal to their owners.

While I enjoyed Ship Breaker, and would recommend it to mature YA readers, I can’t help but wonder if this story wouldn’t have worked better as a regular, non-YA novel. Some of the darker concepts, situated on the periphery of Nailer’s story, are only broadly hinted at rather than described outright, which left me feeling frustrated and wanting to read more. If you told me there was a 600-page adult version of this 340-page YA novel, in which Paolo Bacigalupi really embraced the story’s darkness and delved more deeply into the world’s history and set-up, I’d be first in line to read it.

Still, armchair-quarterbacking aside, Ship Breaker is a good novel with a likable protagonist, a gripping story, and a vision of the future that’s sadly becoming more probable by the day. If the grim realism of the environmentally ruined future described in The Windup Girl didn’t bother you, and you’re in the mood for something in the same vein but at a slightly easier reading level, definitely check out Ship Breaker.


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STEFAN RAETS (on FanLit's staff August 2009 — February 2012) reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. In February 2012, he retired from FanLit to focus on his blog Far Beyond Reality.

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