The Drowned Cities
by Paolo Bacigalupi
Review by Gayle Surrette
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780316056243
Date: 01 May 2012 List Price $17.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
William Tecumseh Sherman said of war, "You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people ... can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride." Paolo Bacigalupi in The Drowned Cities portrays a land at war. A war that rages over the land and that no one can avoid for long.
The book opens with a desperate escape. Tool, a bioengineered war beast, has been forced to fight in the pits. He's injured, ill, and finally manages to get out and into the jungle away from the Drowned Cities.
Mahlia had escaped from the Drowned Cities. She was the daughter of a Peacekeeper and an antiques dealer. Her father, the Peacekeeper, taught her tactics and the works of Sun Tzu. When the Peacekeepers were pulled out, he went and left his wife and child behind. Mahlia's mother was killed and she managed to work her way out of the cities where she met Mouse, who saved her life. They'd later found a haven in a village deep in the jungle. Mahlia was the village doctor's apprentice. That was until they found a mountain of a beast dying in the jungle. Mahlia believes she can use the beast if she saves it but that one thought and acting on it changes the life of Mouse, the village, the doctor, and Mahlia.
The violence perpetrated on those that the soldiers feel deserve punishment is barbaric. Mahlia had her hand cut off because her eyes looked Chinese. If you didn't have the proper colors or totem of the troops currently in charge -- you could be killed or mutilated as a warning to others. There's no sugar coating on fighting and subjugating of the people -- it's brutal and vicious. Everyone lives in fear because it doesn't matter who is in charge this week if you're not a soldier, you're a victim.
The soldiers do as they're told and believe they're fighting for the good of the people while none of the people are to be trusted. There's little or no medical care or medicines so the soldiers sew up their own wounds and either recover or die. They are hard, cold, killers.
Most of the book is told from Mahlia's point of view, however it does occasionally shift to Tool, Mouse, or Ocho, one of the soldiers, when the narrative calls for a new viewpoint to continue the tale. So, our views of events are colored by the viewpoint characters. However, even then the reader is left to make up their own mind about the meaning of the events that play out and whether they agree with the assessment of the character relating the incident.
Mahlia must make some hard choices and learn that all choices have consequences. Should she risk her life to save Mouse or flee? Through Tool she learns that there is more to war than winning and sometimes winning comes at too high a price.
The narrative is clear and events are easy to follow. The emotional punch of the story continues long after you close the book on the final page. As usual with a book or story by Bacigalupi, there's a lot of things to think about, especially once you figure out where the Drowned Cities are and what the various armies are fighting about. The Drowned Cities is not for the faint of heart but well worth the reading.