My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Paolo Bacigalupi is a master of near-future dystopian science fiction. I’ve been dabbling in the genre, and reading this book made me realize that I have a long way to go with respect to world building. In many ways, this book is a textbook for how it should be done. The book is richly drawn, with complex characters, plausible extrapolation of current events, catchy slang, and unexpected twists and turns. With The Water Knife, Bacigalupi is at the top of his imaginative game.
Still, I wasn’t ready to give the book 5 stars, and here’s why. First, it’s a very “adult” book, as in adult situations. I wasn’t exactly shocked by the descriptions of casual violence, torture, murder, rape, blackmail, rough sex, prostitution, and drug use, and I actually found much of it well written. The language was just vivid enough to pique curiosity and keep me reading without grossing me out entirely (although the book’s name for tabloid newspapers, “blood rags,” kept reminding me of used sanitary napkins, and that was probably intentional. Yuck). By the end of the book, however, much of it seemed gratuitous. I was reminded of reactions to The Windup Girl, the other book I have read by this author. I recommended Windup Girl to a book group, and several people in that group hated the book because of its graphic scenes of sexual violence. One woman even refused to finish it. I felt a little guilty, having been the one to recommend it. If you read this book in a book group, be aware of what you are getting in for!
My other quibble with this book is loose ends and red herrings. The opening scene has “creative writing workshop” written all over it. It starts in medias res, and brings plenty of action, excitement, and danger. But for all the ratcheting up of tension and suspense, the events of that scene have little to do with the rest of the plot. Of the novel’s three most important characters, only Angel is introduced here, and other seemingly important characters–Charles Braxton and Simon Yu for example–make their only appearance, never to be seen again. Based on this opening, I also thought that Catherine Case was going to be a major driver of the plot. The author sets her up as a big mover and shaker behind the scenes: The Queen of the Colorado River. But throughout the remainder of the novel, she exists largely offstage as Angel’s sometime fairy godmother, sometime tormenter, and never really steps out of the shadows. I actually found the opening chapter confusing enough that I almost didn’t continue reading. I am glad I persevered, but other readers may not.
I also didn’t see the need for Maria to have two of her fingers bitten off by hyenas. There was no plot- or character-driven reason for it, and it made her final desperate plan to swim to freedom seem even more far-fetched, suffering with a gapingly wounded hand on top of everything else. This development came across as simply gross and degrading. The ending of the book is ambiguous too, and, as others have noted, anticlimactic. It was not clear to me what any of the 3 main characters had learned or how they had changed. Lucy Monroe, not Angel, ended up being perhaps the most fully realized of the three, having come as close to hell as a human can get in this life, and coming out on the other side, realizing that she too is part of Phoenix and her fortunes are now intertwined with its fate. It seems as if the author may have started out intending to write Angel’s story (and the title–The Water Knife, which is Angel’s job–bears this out), but Lucy took over about halfway through.
Having Lucy, a journalist, be its real protagonist sets this book up to comment on the role of the writer in troubled, chaotic times. Lucy is both a heroic and tragic figure, both braver and more foolish than most of us would be when faced with the collapse of everything. The author deserves credit for taking his material seriously, and giving us characters worthy of it. In spite of the book’s flaws, it is impossible to come away from it unmoved and unconcerned about the future of our planet.
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