& Review: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi. Fiction. Publisher: Audible Studios by Brilliance Audio.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi. Fiction. Publisher: Audible Studios by Brilliance Audio.

The Book Itself: The physical copy of this book has a silvery foil, which makes the cool water-effect of the cover even cooler. I’m a sucker for simplicity! So this cover is really appealing to me.

My Review: In the American Southwest, Nevada, Arizona, and California skirmish for dwindling shares of the Colorado River. Into the fray steps Angel Velasquez, detective, leg-breaker, assassin, and spy. A Las Vegas water knife, Angel “cuts” water for his boss, Catherine Case, ensuring that her lush, luxurious arcology developments can bloom in the desert, so the rich can stay wet, while the poor get nothing but dust. When rumors of a game-changing water source surface in drought-ravaged Phoenix, Angel is sent to investigate. There, he encounters Lucy Monroe, a hardened journalist with no love for Vegas and every reason to hate Angel, and Maria Villarosa, a young Texas refugee who survives by her wits and street smarts in a city that despises everything that she represents.

With bodies piling up, bullets flying, and Phoenix teetering on collapse, it seems like California is making a power play to monopolize the life-giving flow of a river. For Angel, Lucy, and Maria time is running out and their only hope for survival rests in each other’s hands. But when water is more valuable than gold, alliances shift like sand, and the only thing for certain is that someone will have to bleed if anyone hopes to drink.

I read Paolo Bacigalupi’s (pronounced Bat-cha-gah-loopy. Say it out loud – it’s fun!) Ship Breaker a few years ago, and while I did not go onto the sequel (not that Breaker wasn’t good – I just got distracted by my immense to-read pile), I hear Drowned Cities is fantastic.

But I digress. Because this ain’t no young adult novel. This is a so-scary-because-it’s-coming-true adult fairy tale/dystopian tale with grit in every one of its story-crevices.

“Story crevices.” Gross, but an appropriate description.

I listened to this story via audiobook. It’s not a nice story. Or a happy one. And if you’re squeamish or can’t stomach graphic violence, don’t pick this one up. I was cringing on my morning commute when listening to the morgue scene – the obscene description of the torture done to bodies in this book certainly steps over the line a couple of times, and there are prostitutes and hints of sex galore.

But I’ve read worse (mini-confession: American Psycho is by far the most disturbing book I’ve ever read, hands down, bar none), and while the constant mention of violence and sex wasn’t my favorite aspect of the story as a whole, I understand that the goal is to shock and horrify the reader. I think it succeeds in that, and I think it’s also meant to point out something: if this horrifies you, do something about it. Because a lot of this is where the world seems to be tilting.

People kill for water, and those with money live in pampered greenhouse/terrarium apartments with waterfalls while the poor huddle around dusty water pumps and wait for the price to fall below $7 a gallon. Our players are a water knife – a mercenary hired to tell people that their business, their town, is being cut off from the major water supply. A journalist looking to graduate from writing about desolate, failing cities, to something really important (and does, only to find herself way over her head). And a girl in the wrong place at the wrong time, kept poor by her circumstances, forced to do awful things for money just to survive being run down by murderous hyenas at the hand of her brutish landlord.

They’re all a little…messed up. Strike that. They all become so ruined by their circumstances, you’re pretty sure everyone is going to die at more than one point in the story. Bacigalupi does a great job at ratcheting up tension here. The ending really fizzles out, and the moments after the crazy climax are a bit of a tangled mess. Overall I couldn’t find myself getting into it, or desiring to push the story forward (there were a couple weeks there where I didn’t put a CD in because I didn’t feel like continuing. It was a book I needed to be in the mood to hear, and it wasn’t a consistent mood). Perhaps it was because it was an audiobook, perhaps it was because the moments of despair and depravity so outweighed any moment of hope or beauty that I couldn’t get behind the book’s momentum. Whatever it is, it doesn’t turn me away from Bacigalupi’s work by any means, but this book won’t be in my top 5 this year.

My Grade: C

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