Paolo Bacigalupi’s young-adult novels are so unsubtle that they shouldn’t work. Late in his latest, The Drowned Cities, he directly connects the brutal warfare of his near-future dystopic America to the country’s current political culture; it shouldn’t work, yet it somehow does. Bacigalupi’s tough-minded storytelling wouldn’t work with too much subtext. He needs to put the brutality of war front and center, then remind readers constantly that those fighting it are just teenagers. This is what happens when people get desperate. This is what happens when people are reduced to their basest natures.
Bacigalupi’s earlier young-adult novel in this universe, Ship Breaker, won one of the two most prestigious awards for a YA book—the Printz—and was nominated for another, the National Book Award. Naturally, expectations for a sequel or spinoff involve diminishing returns, but Drowned Cities is better in almost every way. Where Ship Breaker was a more traditional boy’s adventure novel with a series of locking quests at its center, Drowned Cities is a story about a girl who grew up knowing nothing but warfare, which thoroughly dominates even her peripheral vision.
Bacigalupi’s central character is the book’s greatest triumph. Mahlia is a teenager who was born and raised in the titular cities, a famous American metropolis flooded by global warming. (As part of the novel’s backstory, the world also ran out of oil.) Her mother was native to the cities, but her father was a Chinese Peacekeeper, sent to North America to prevent the many smaller armies—who are trying to carve out a piece of the former United States for themselves—from warring. This effort went about as well as these efforts do, and the Chinese left the Drowned Cities to their own devices. Mahlia was forced to flee after warriors killed her mother and cut off Mahlia’s hand. Now she and her fellow orphan Mouse live in a small village, Banyan Town, under the protection of a kindly older doctor, cowering in fear from these bands of killers.
The most significant crossover with Ship Breaker (other than the novel’s setting) is Tool, a product of genetic engineering meant to produce the perfect soldier who was also the perfect weapon. Part man, part dog, part tiger, and part hyena, Tool is a ruthless killing machine with a skewed sense of honor. When Mahlia and Mouse find him in the jungle surrounding Banyan Town, she begins to hatch a scheme she hopes will pull her out of the war-ridden world forever. The doctor cautions her that this will only drag her deeper into the war, but she’s headstrong and desperate for revenge.
The novel tracks the evolution of Mahlia’s conscience, and her moral breakthroughs are thrilling—all the more thrilling because Bacigalupi surrounds them with tightly written battle scenes. The book follows perhaps one too many point-of-view characters—a soldier bent on stopping Mahlia is less interesting than Mouse, Tool, or Mahlia—but by the time Mahlia is sacrificing everything she can think of to rescue someone and right the wrongs she feels she’s committed, the book has become both compulsively readable and filled with moments of grim beauty. Many novels ladle on misery as a kind of gravy; Drowned Cities understands that a world defined by brutality makes misery such a constant, it becomes inescapable.