The Drowned Cities: Brings weighty concerns to a YA audience

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Drowned Cities by Paolo BacigalupiThe Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

The oceans have swallowed the world’s coastlines. Although the Chinese have adapted to the new world – they have even built “Island Shanghai” – the American state has drowned beneath the rising tides. Now, only tattered American flags and decrepit skyscrapers remain on the coast, and the American government is a thing of the past. In spite of past efforts made by Chinese peacekeepers, adolescent refugees Mahlia and Mouse now live in the “Drowned Cities,” struggling to survive amidst competing scavengers, criminals, and warlords.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Drowned Cities is the sequel to Ship Breaker, which won the Michael L. Printz Award in 2011. Fans will be disappointed to learn that Nailer “Lucky Boy” Lopez does not appear in The Drowned Cities. Instead, the two stories are linked by Tool, who is wounded and on the run when we join him at the novel’s start.

Tool is a force of war and destruction. He has the muzzle of a wolf and the teeth of a tiger. He is called a “half-man” and an “augment” because he is the product of genetic manipulation. Most augments are trained to live and fight in packs for their patron, but Tool rebels against this aspect of his nature. He does not, however, rebel against the violence within him. Tool may be more dangerous than the regular human soldiers chasing him, but they have nevertheless all but killed him when he meets Mahlia.

Fortunately, Mahlia is studying medicine, though she finds it difficult to help patients with only one hand. Her father was a head Chinese peacekeeper until he left America in despair, and he was disgusted to see that Mahlia was growing up pure “drowned cities.” Now, Mahlia is an orphan who only has a doctor and her friend Mouse to care for her.

Unfortunately, Tool has led one of the militant groups to Mahlia’s village. The militants capture Mouse and begin training him to become a “soldier boy” named “Ghost.” Mahlia and Tool set out to rescue Mouse before he becomes a ghost of the boy they once knew.

Usually, SFF authors use sequels to flesh out their imagined worlds. Here, our heroine Mahlia covers less ground than her predecessor, Nailer, did in Ship Breaker. In fact, the novel hardly “travels” anywhere. The warlords arrive, depart, and are followed by Mahlia. The plot is extremely focused on Mahlia’s interaction with the militants. For Bacigalupi, the focus is not the ecology of the drowned cities but rather the psychology of its residents. If an “eye for an eye” leads to a world in which everyone is blind, can people find a way to transcend the violence around them?

The Drowned Cities is young adult SFF, but it strives to be more than “just” a generic adventure set against a post-apocalyptic setting. Bacigalupi attempts to discuss child soldiers from within the framework of a young adult SFF novel. “Soldier boys” are abducted, given weapons, and forced to attack others. They carry their rank in facial scars, and they are rewarded for violence with narcotics. Unlike many other young adult SFF novels, which glorify and romanticize teenage violence, Bacigalupi seems to have brought the horror of child soldiers into his dystopian future for the sake of authenticity and atmosphere rather than adventure alone. When we study failed states, we all too often encounter child soldiers, and so there are more than chase scenes to consider here.

Unfortunately, I found that I was never able to suspend disbelief while following Mouse’s transformation into Ghost. Young adult SFF, with its need to reach a climactic battle, is perhaps inevitably a step or two removed from the realities it depicts. We are invited to disapprove of violence while simultaneously anticipating Tool decapitating his enemies, and I was all too conscious of this contradiction in The Drowned Cities. In fact, I often found myself questioning whether a young adult SFF narrative could carry the weight of Bacigalupi’s subject. While Laurie Halse Anderson and Sarah Dessen have managed to discuss “adult” topics like rape and battery in novels marketed to young adults, they did so without taking on the additional burden of writing an action novel.

Ultimately, I found The Drowned Cities a more ambitious but less successful novel than Ship Breaker. Having said that, I also began to question whether my concerns about The Drowned Cities also applied to Ship Breaker. Regardless, both novels tap into very real concerns about the environment, human rights, and the lives of children in failed states. Here, Bacigalupi introduces those failed states to a Western audience by making the failed state a near-future America. Although I did not enjoy The Drowned Cities, I am confident that Bacigalupi is emerging as one of the most interesting young adult SFF authors we have.

I listened to Brilliance Audio’s production of The Drowned Cities, which was read by Joshua Swanson. Unfortunately, I found the voices that Swanson adopted a little distracting. Mahlia’s voice seems to rise at the end of every sentence, and I also spent a great deal of time trying to figure out who Tool reminded me of. When I finally realized that it was Optimus Prime, I began waiting for him to declare that “freedom is the right of all sentient beings.”


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RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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