REVIEW: The Drowned Cities, by Paolo Bacigalupi
Though it has some quality characters and a thought-provoking title, The Drowned Cities falls short of answering the one question that made me pick it up in the first place: What's up with those drowned cities?
This book portrays a post-apocalyptic, mid-conflict snapshot of a small village and the jungle surrounding it. The sense of physical geography is rather uncertain across the board. There isn't a clear picture of where this takes place in relation to the world we know, but a medley of references that point off in different directions. Right off the bat, the reader is made to feel a sense of temporal and geographical disconnect with their new environment.
The "drowned" aspect seems to be in reference to the heightened water line that caused ocean and jungle to advance on the continent in a way that makes human habitation a constant challenge. This, in part, makes up for the lack of defined territorial borders: they were wiped away in a natural disaster so long ago that nobody remembers where one country ends and another begins.
Beyond the issue of clarity in the setting, there are some engaging and emotionally resonant characters at play. The principal characters are Mahlia and Tool, a half-Chinese pariah and a genetically-engineered splice of predatory animals turned super soldier. Both are outcasts who depend on each other for survival. Their partnership made me think of Lyra Belacqua and Iorek Byrnison, if The Golden Compass took place in the Vietnam War, and both of them were foul-tempered killers. Mahlia and Tool are caught in the middle of a conflict that seeks to overwhelm them, and must work together to reach safer territory.
Mahlia has an interesting relationship to her setting. She struggles with her sense of identity, having Drowned Cities heritage in her blood, and wonders how this may have corrupted her character. One might infer from her pondering that the Drowned Cities are not a friendly place.
That said, the reader is not given sufficient tools or context to make this judgment call for themselves. The majority of the book takes place outside of the Drowned Cities, and yet the Cities are referenced constantly. The author might have benefited from grounding their world-building efforts earlier and taking the reader to the aforementioned Cities in the first third or quarter of the book rather than the last. Instead, the reader is led from one nondescript jungle to another, hearing about the setting as if from gossip.
There's also a great deal of historical detail glossed over. This cross-section of the world is the subject of repeated invasion by different warlord armies, each bearing different ideals, sigils, philosophies, and methods of brutality. Much like the setting, we only hear about these warlords and their militia forces secondhand. From the far end of the book, I still couldn't tell the Army of God from the UPF, or the peacekeepers from the corporate powers. These conflicts are portrayed as being very relevant, but once more, the reader has no context for it while it's being told to them second or third hand.
The writing itself is very solid, which makes me wish that the author had been more tactful in their presentation. The technical strategies of how to tell a story are as important to master as the poetry of one's words, and The Drowned Cities could stand to strike a healthier balance with both.
Would you read Drowned Cities?