Paolo Bacigalupi – The Drowned Cities (2012) | Book Review

Paolo Bacigalupi‘s The Windup Girl was the best debut novel of just about anyone, maybe ever. It was fresh and brilliant with wonderful characters (despite almost all of them being unlikable) and a world unlike anything seen in science fiction. It won the Hugo Award, and Bacigalupi managed to follow that up with a National Book Award nominee and Michael L. Printz Award winner in Ship Breaker, which told the story of a young boy forced to scavenge from derelict ships in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by global warming. The Drowned Cities is that novel’s successor, in that it shares the world and one major character. It is the best work Bacigalupi has ever done.

The Drowned Cities centers around Mahlia, a part-Chinese war orphan living in the D.C. area who had one hand removed by soldiers. Despite her handicap, she works as the assistant for the doctor of her small town, in a region that is constantly ravaged by always changing regimes of violence. The current occupiers are the UPF, but it is hard to believe that one could tell the difference between them and the Army of God or any of the other potential military dictatorships. Life is miserable, and soldiers come through from time to time just to rape and murder for the hell of it. Mahlia is a remarkably strong and wonderful character, who believes that she can escape the horrors of her world despite everything around her being so miserable and so dire that hope is in short supply.

The plot really begins when Mahlia and her best friend Mouse discover an unconscious half-wolf man called Tool. Thinking him to be dead, they try to cut into him to salvage what they can for meat or otherwise, but he awakes and takes Mouse hostage. Mahlia pleads for Tool not to kill her friend, and in exchange promises to go steal antibiotics and other medication from the doctor to help the half-man recover from injuries sustained in a prison break. To go any further would be to spoil, but it is an absolutely amazing story that is sometimes hard to read because of gore and the pure sorrow in every aspect of Mahlia’s situation.

Bacigalupi’s quality of writing is astounding. Both his prose and dialogue are just about perfect, and there are so many moments through the novel that beg the reader to stop and re-read. There’s just so much here and so much power in every part that it gives one the strong urge to run around telling every single person about it. The book may not be for everyone; it is often so depressing that it can be hard to return to. But this novel is so good, so perfect, that it would be a crime if it were not to win just about every award for the genre. Paolo Bacigalupi is absolutely the best writer working today.

Rating: 5 stars (of 5)

Science Fiction Summer: A Quick Look at Recent and Upcoming Novels

This summer looks like it will shape up to be pretty significant in terms of science fiction releases. The number of big names putting out new books over the next few months is pretty impressive, and as such it is worth taking a quick look at what we will be reading through the warmer months.

  • The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi – The hottest novelist in science fiction returns to the world he created in Ship Breaker with a new young adult novel that follows two young refugees from a war torn world, where one of them is kidnapped and the other is forced to decide between saving his friend or finally getting freedom. Was released on May 1st by Little Brown Books
  • Railsea by China Mieville – A science fiction-y retelling of Melville’s Moby Dick tells the story of hunters tracking down enormous  mole-like creatures with harpoons while travelling down an endless system of rails across the Railsea. They discover a derelict train that leads them to something mysterious and impossible. Was released on May 15th by Del Rey
  • Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi – Scalzi parodies the classic Star Trek series in a comedic novel that follows a young Ensign who begins to realize that every time a team leaves the ship, it comes back with one less lower ranked crew member while the officers always mysteriously remain in tact. Tongue-in-cheek sci-fi adventure in the typical Scalzi good humor. To be released June 5th by Tor Books
  • The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross – Bob Howard is a computational demonologist working for the English government when a mysterious televangelist with healing powers named Ray Schiller starts to get a little too cozy with the Prime Minister. When the government dispatches a brilliant woman named Persephone Hazard to infilitrate the healer’s religious organization, Howard has to make sure everything doesn’t blow up their collective faces. To be released July 3rd
  • The Coldest War by Ian TregillisThe long awaited sequel to the brilliant Bitter Seeds, an alternate history story set in a world where the British use warlocks to fight the Nazis and their superhuman soldiers. Raybould Marsh was one of the best characters in recent science fiction memory and his re-appearance will be worth the price of the book alone. To be released July 17th by Tor Books
  • Whispers Under Grounds by Ben Aaronovitch – The third novel in Aaronovitch’s series about Peter Grant, a mixed race copper and amateur wizard living in London and investigating crimes involving paranormal magic. This novel takes Grant and his allies into the subway, still on the hunt for a mysterious wizard called The Faceless Man. To be released July 31st by Del Rey

This is just a handful of the really exciting science fiction novels coming out this summer. Rest assured that your dear editor realizes that this list is a bit of a sausage fest so please let us know what we’re missing from the list that you are looking forward to in the coming months.

Review: The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi (2011)

The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi
Subterranean Press, 2011

Rating: A-

In a fantasy world where poisonous bramble grows wild by feeding off the energy residue left behind by casting illegal magic, a destitute alchemist named Jeoz invents a device can be used to destroy the bramble once and for all. His young daughter is terminally ill and he is forced to use illegal magic to keep her alive, and it is his hope that by offering up his invention to the local government, they will use their more advanced magical aptitude to cure his daughter of her illness once and for all.

Paolo Bacigalupi made a name for himself immediately with The Windup Girl, and is yet to disappoint since. There is no style that can be directly pinpointed as being Bacigalupi’s; everything he writes seems so fresh and inventive and nothing at all like anything that has come before it. The Windup Girl was near-future dystopian biopunk with a large cast of characters that, despite generally being unlikable, felt so developed and thoroughly real in a perfectly designed sci-fi dystopia. Ship Breaker, a novel for young adults, follows a young man who makes a living by harvesting copper from crashed ships, as the metal has become precious in a world ravaged by climate change.

Environmentalism is the one theme that is consistent between all of his works. In The Alchemist, the bramble that grows from the use of magic is a metaphor for climate change coming as a result of reckless use of technology that leaves behind environmental destruction in the form of carbon emissions. Although fantasy has the tendency to borrow too heavily from what has come before it, the world of The Alchemist (and it’s companion novella, The Executioness) is wholly original and brilliant. With immaculate prose and flawless dialogue, Bacigalupi is the best science fiction writer working today, with barely any competition at all. Writers like Mieville and Stephenson have contributed important novels to the speculative fiction canon, but neither of them can boast the consistency of Bacigalupi’s contributions to the medium.