Imagine a world drowned under the seas; cities swampy and sluggish with brackish water. Imagine the buildings of these cities demolished, their people destroyed under the warring rules of gangs and military factions whose signs are everywhere — on walls, on guns, on charms hanging around the necks of disposable teenage armies. Imagine life being quite literally of no value in a place where “none of us is getting out of here alive. You get it? We’re just walking dead […] we’re just meat in the mill,” Sounds like it could be Karachi? Or Sierra Leone? It isn’t — it’s the world of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Drowned Cities.
Bacigalupi follows his highly acclaimed 2010 YA novel Ship Breaker with an equally adrenaline packed, high octane adventure novel set in the same world as the first. The only character familiar to Ship Breaker readers will be the bio-engineered half-man Tool, a fantastic post-human hero for The Drowned Cities with his augmented DNA making him the perfect war machine. Fans of Ship Breaker will be pleased to see Tool developed further here, although it is uncertain where this narrative fits on a timeline with Ship Breaker. Of course, it matters very little — The Drowned Cities reads perfectly well as an independent, stand alone story.
The narrative follows two ‘war maggots’, children orphaned by the violence in the Drowned Cities, Mahlia and Mouse, as they try to survive this dangerous, desperate world, living as best they can in Banyan Town, a village where the local doctor is their guardian and conscience. Their meeting with a wounded and escaped Tool in a swamp isn’t quite so fortuitous as Pip’s with Magwitch, with Tool taking on the role of brooding, dangerous protector rather than absentee benefactor, but much in the same way, it does change everything for Mahlia and Mouse. The meeting sets off a string of actions too furious and violent to be written off as mere adventures. Mahlia attempts to escape Banyan Town by forging a dangerous, tense relationship with Tool, but in the bloodshed that follows she loses Doctor Mahfouz. Mouse survives only to be recruited by a rag-tag group of soldiers from the United Patriot Fund — all of whom are almost children themselves.
One of the most disturbing elements of the book is the portrayal of the child soldiers used by each warring faction. Similar to the Sudanese Lost Boys or child soldiers in Somalia or Sierra Leone, Bacigalupi’s child soldiers have been orphaned very young and turned to the UPF in order to survive, once quite literally placed in a kill or be killed situation. They are perhaps the most tragic element of this story — not just in their sheer disposability, but also in their frightening awareness of it. The sergeant of the gang Mouse is with, Ocho, may be a teenager, but understands his life the way an adult may: the deaths he can cause will eventually lead to his own. “Not that day, and maybe not the next, but eventually, it would all come boomeranging back [at him]. Fates coming howling in like banshees.” It is the story of the soldier boys that lurks menacingly under Mahlia, Mouse and Tool’s narrative, and it is this thick, bloody darkness that holds The Drowned Cities tightly to its core.
This is not a novel for those who believe that YA fiction must take a high moral stance at all — this is very much a novel that questions and pushes just that much further beyond what may be acceptable to many YA readers and their parents. Bacigalupi is not afraid to push his narrative just that little bit further — his worldbuilding is sound, but may be alarming to some in the extent of its dystopia, his concerns with climate change may seem extreme but are firmly rooted in current realities and when it comes to violence, he’s perfectly at ease with plenty of blood, viscera and gore, all deftly handled as part of large, tightly wound action scenes. Each of the lead characters is fallible, prone to perfectly human mistakes and decisions that prove their moral compass does not point to true north at all times. While this may worry certain adults who demand YA take the higher ground, it’s not hard to imagine doing what Bacigalupi’s characters choose to do. Survival, after all, is of the fittest, the smartest — not the good. “Got to learn quick if you want to stay alive”, says Ocho. “Drowned Cities eats stupid for breakfast […] You make it to sixteen, you’re a goddamn legend.”
This is a far harsher story than the one told in Ship Breaker: it is brutal, unapologetic and is clearly a deeper comment on our world today. Intelligent YA fiction has always been a sign of the times, and it doesn’t get much clearer than The Drowned Cities.
Let this be a warning to readers of easy to swallow YA fantasy fiction — Bacigalupi’s vision is bleak, gritty and unredeeming — here, you will not find motivational speeches or emotional conversations that can change lives; no god in a machine will swoop down to save Mahlia and Mouse — they are children of a world gone mad, a world torn asunder by violence, sheer human greed and excess. Theirs is a future destroyed before they could even begin to imagine it.
The value of human life — theirs, Tool’s, others — is abysmal, with barges creaking as “men and women pulled on their ropes [and] chanted and hauled. They were civvies. Or slaves. Or maybe just legs and arms and sweating backs.” There is nothing in this book that will let you rest in peace or breathe easy. This is what makes The Drowned Cities so terribly good, because as Bacigalupi himself has said about YA fiction, it must have ‘teeth’. And this story’s are sharp, deadly and true.
The Drowned Cities
By Paolo Bacigalupi
Little Brown, US