The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

I have just finished the Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi and this is my review. The Drowned Cities is the companion novel to Ship Breaker, which I read in 2012 or something. It’s not a direct continuation, so the fact that I had forgotten most of Ship Breaker wasn’t a big deal to be honest.

The Drowned Cities is set in a sort of dystopian USA. It’s about a young woman named Mahlia and a young boy called Mouse who are both orphans of war and who live with a kind doctor who took them in. Mahlia is half Chinese, her mother went out with a Chinese Peacekeeper and now that the Chinese are hated Mahlia and other “castoffs” like her are seen as suspicious. Soldiers from one of the factions cut off Mahlia’s right hand for fun, and she tries to sort of slip by under the radar. Mahlia and Mouse stumble over a half-man, Tool, who is part man, part tiger, part dog, part killing machine. He has been chased into a swamp by soldier boys answering to a warlord, Colonel Stern. Mahlia sees the half-man as her way out if she can save him. The soldiers take Mouse and Mahlia has a choice to help Mouse or to get out and get away.

It was amazing. It truly was. It was fast paced and exciting. The action didn’t really seem to stop, or let up. There’s also tension through the whole book, it doesn’t let you feel safe, which is interesting. In most books you sort of assume that the main protagonist is safe from most things, but in this book I had no clue what would happen to her.

The book is about loyalty and friendship, which I think is an interesting subject. A lot of YA dystopia is based around a love story, but there isn’t actually a love story in the Drowned Cities, which makes my black little heart so happy. I’m bitter. It is a story about Mahlia trying to get her friend back because she owes him her life. They’re not in love with each other, they’re friends and they depend on each other. Mahlia overcomes all this logic and pragmatism, and fear, to try to help her friend, even though it seems completely hopeless.

The book also looks into child soldiers. Because there were wars and battles and drowning cities there aren’t a lot of adults left, especially in the armies, so most of the armies are made up of mostly young boys. And to see how they turned someone into a soldier was fascinating. They have pretty much killed his entire village and taken him away from everything he knows and they force and scare him into service before getting his loyalty, and it’s fascinating to see how they do it.

I thought Tool was amazing. He is part man, part dog, tiger, coyote, part weapon. He doesn’t really have loyalty to anyone, being something of an anomaly among the half-man pack. He’s very fascinating in that you sort of assume he’s this brute who rips people apart. And while he does that he is also very cultured. While the other people in the book, like Mahlia and the soldiers, speak this rougher, tough accent with dropped gs and everything, Tool speaks like a scholar. He sounds like he’s teaching University English. He’s an excellent strategist, and he is a pragmatist, and obviously he can rip people to shreds, but he will do what keeps him out of trouble. Not because he’s a coward, but because he doesn’t want to die, which is fair. He was made to kill people and he’s been pushed and punished to do what others have forced him to do, and he just wants to get out.

I really liked the soldier boys. I liked to hate them, sort of. They’re obviously pushed into this life and while they do awful things it’s not necessarily something they want to do. It does seem like they enjoy their status, and they enjoy the prostitutes and they enjoy killing people and injuring people, and they enjoy the power they have. They can just go into a town and take what they want, which you know, that’s nice. But I love them anyway for the loyalty they have to each other. They care about each other and they have qualms, and they were given no other chance for survival, so what else would they do but fight to survive? Child soldiers make me so sad, thankfully, but I think it’s good to read about them and how they work, to understand them.

I feel like the ending was a little rushed and neatly done. It felt like it suddenly just ended and it was like: this’ll turn out great. Now obviously, the ending is very open-ended, so anything could happen, and Mahlia isn’t really surrounded by friends, but there is hope. Which is probably necessary now that I think about it. The book is so dark, and bleak, and there is so much distress, and so much horror and war, so I enjoy the hope, but I just thought it seemed a bit simple and easy. That was long and convoluted, but okay. That’s just what I do.

Final thoughts:
It was grim and dark, and it went some really creepy, sadistic, horrible places, and it was hard to stomach sometimes, but that just made it sort of amazing. It was good.