Oh Paolo Bacigalupi, you are so awesome and I so wish I could enjoy your books as much as I appreciate and admire them. The Drowned Cities is a companion novel to Ship Breaker. Both books are set in the same world but The Drowned Cities is in a different location and set years earlier. The connection between the books is obvious in some ways but I often wished some hint of how the plots and characters impacted each other.
Some background on my reading history with Bacigalupi: I read Ship Breaker when it was a Cybils finalist the last time I judged SFF. I had a lot of problems with it.) that one–problems that did still turn up here–but I was happy to see writing that was much improved compared to Bacigalupi’s first exploration of this world. I also picked up The Drowned Cities as a Cybils judge. It was, again, a book I would not have picked up otherwise given my own tastes as a reader.
There were a lot of interesting things here. Bacigalupi seems to work a lot with the power of names which is one of my favorite things. I liked seeing how naming came into play for Mahlia and Ocho. And I thought the concept of name was taken to especially good effect with Mouse’s story. The concept of Luck and Choice was also present and interesting although by the end I thought it got a bit heavy-handed with everyone doing horrible things basically all the time and wondering what that meant for their humanity.
I found all of the main characters hard to take in the beginning when they were more self-centered, calculating and ultimately mean. Though, giving credit to the author, that was definitely the point but it was almost unbearable reading about all of these people with almost no redeeming qualities.
My largest problem was Mahlia and her lack of a right hand. By the end of the story, I got that it was important to the karmic side plot Bacigalupi was working and everything coming full circle. That said, having a one-handed character means I, as a reader, am going to be thinking A LOT about how that character does things. Early on Mahlia is at pains to mention that she grips with her left and balances with her stump to plant that seed early on. Generally any time Mahlia was “in action” I was taken out of the story as I tried to figure out how she was doing something (or why she had no phantom pains). How does she wring out a rag with one hand? How does she tie a cloth around her head? How does she “fiddle” with a rifle with one hand?
Given Mahlia’s life, the ending of the story also seemed over-the-top and felt contrived in order to give Mahlia a chance to deliver a very stirring speech. I get that it was a powerful scene and important to the story but I really felt the writing being manipulated to satisfy writerly ends when, really, Mahlia could have suffered any number of other hardships.
In that same vein, I was underwhelmed by the ending of the story overall. After following these characters through all of these horrors I wanted more than the hint of hope and redemption that we got at the end. I wanted more as a big message at the end of the book than war is hell and makes otherwise good people do monstrous things.
This is a trope that I’ve seen in some other novels recently, with less gore and violence, (and it pains me to say it because I do genuinely believe Bacigalupi is a wonderful writer) but it was handled better in other books including Code Name Verity and The 5th Wave. Fans of Ship Breaker will want to pick this one up as will readers who are fond of action, dystopians and stories that don’t shy away from violence.