Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

The second installment of Paolo Bacigalupi's novels dealing with a post-apocalyptic America is set in the Drowned Cities, one of which is Washington, DC. The Drowned Cities picks up the story of Tool, a half man who was captured at the end of the first book, Ship Breakers.

Tool is half man, a genetically designed war machine, trained to make war and kill. He had been part of a battalion commanded by General Caroa and had fought in the Kolkata Delta, as well as many other wars and survived them all. Tool escapes the prison he is held captive in and flees into the salt swamps around the Drowned Cities. He is being pursued by Colonel Glenn Stern of the United Patriot Front and his boy soldiers.. In an attempt to hide from the soldiers, Tool submerges himself in a swamp only to be viciously attacked by a gigantic alligator. The two behemoths end up in a life and death struggle.

Meanwhile not far away, in Banyan Town, Mahlia, Mouse, and Doctor Mahfouz struggle to survive. Mahlia's father was a Chinese General who came over to America with his troops as peacekeepers. When the Chinese left, their peacekeeping mission a failure, Mahlia's father left too, leaving behind Mahlia and her mother, who sold antiques to survive. Eventually Mahlia's mother disappeared and she was left on her own. Mahlia is considered a castoff - someone who sympathized with the peacekeepers. She lost her right hand to the boy soldiers of the Army of God, one of many armies battling for control of what remains of America. Finding refuge in Banyan Town, Mahlia helps the kindly Dr. Mahfouz as he tends to the wounded and sick with the limited medical supplies he has managed to salvage.

Mouse, or Malati Saint Olmos as he was once known, saw his family farm burned, his parents and his little brother Simon shot dead, and his older brother Shane recruited as a boy soldier. Mouse and Mahlia are together because he saved Mahlia from the Army of God.

On an expedition for food, Mouse and Mahlia encounter Tool, fatally wounded and in the process of dying. Tool manages to capture Mouse and in order to free him, Mahlia offers to bring back medicine from Banyan Town. Tool agrees and Mahlia leaves for Banyan Town. But when she returns home, she finds that the soldiers who have been hunting Tool are in the town, pillaging and terroring the inhabitants. When they see that Mahlia is a castoff and half-Chinese, they try to kill her. Dr. Mahfouz intervenes and he and Mahlia are made to treat the wounded survivors from their encounter with Tool.

But this means that Mahlia will be delayed in bringing the meds back to Tool, thus endangering Mouse's life. So she concocts a plan that brings about a devastating coywolv attack on the soldiers and ultimate ruin upon Banyan Town. Mahlia, Mouse and Dr. Mahfouz escape into the jungle and locate Tool who is now barely alive. Against the wishes of Mahfouz, Mahlia treats and heals Tool, whom she hopes will help her escape the Drowned Cities, to find freedom and peace. But things become complicated when Mouse returns to Banyan Town and is captured and recruited into the UPF. Mahlia is faced with a terrible choice; save Mouse or leave with Tool for freedom in the north.

The Drowned Cities is not for the faint of heart. Moving from one violent, raw scene to the next, Bacigalupi tells the story of an America run by warlords, where children are recruited to fight, scarred and shaped into cruel killers, and where civilization has all but vanished into the swampy recesses of the jungle.China which once occupied the country as peacekeepers for a decade have fled, leaving the nation to wallow in its own tyranny. Bacigalupi effectively portrays the brutal world America has devolved to; waring factions divided by ideology as to how the country will be run. There is the Army of God who want a nation founded on religion and who cut off the hands and feet of those who oppose them. Their main opponent is the United Patriot Front who believe in a constitutional nation and who equally maim and kill, only with acid and knives.

America is now populated by a people who have no connection to their past and who are rapidly destroying their history by bartering artifacts for guns and bullets. Incredibly, it is the half man, Tool, who recognizes this.

"'I see things here that were thought lost long ago. These are the sorts of objects that should live in the greatest museums of the world.' He gingerly lifted up a piece of parchment and studied it. 'Some of them once did.'"
This makes Tool a very unique character. While he is considered a "half-man" because he has the genetics of dog, hyena and other animals mixed into his makeup, Tool still has more humanity than genetically pure men, who now behave like animals, fighting and killing, destroying their culture and heritage.

The ongoing destruction of the Capitol near the end of the novel is heartrending to read.

"Mahlia craned her neck. A huge marble building loomed into view. The palace. Marble from top to bottom. Steps marching up from the lake to its grand presence. A soaring dome stood central, seeming to touch the sky, and it was flanked on either side by broad marbled wings that encompassed more space than Banyan Town....

One wing of the vast structure looked as if it had been hit by artillery, and its fascade had turned to crumbling rubble. Scavenge gangs were ripping into it, men and mules dragging material out of the shattered building, skins gleaming sweat under the burning sun."

One aspect of this novel that was very well done, is the development of the main characters. Mahlia, who despite being maimed and discriminated against for being half Chinese and therefore a peacekeeper collaborator, is a strong woman, loyal to Mouse who saved her, but also open to reconsidering who and what Tool is. Mahlia is true to herself and her beliefs, even if it means hardship and risk.

Tool, the half man, is described as a war-raging monster. And certainly the opening scenes of the novel lead us to form that opinion. He can move faster than a normal human, he has acutely developed senses, and he has incredible strength. Tool even behaves like an animal,eating the heart of his victims. But as the novel progresses, Tool's humanity begins to show through more and more often. He can control his animal instincts to a point and he can reason with his human mind. He can make choices and he understands war. We even learn that when he was younger, his human side was stronger but like the child soldiers he was molded into the war machine that he is.

The child soldiers, brilliantly characterized by Bacigalupi, show both their brutality and their humanity. Child soldiers were once children, but who were molded into killing machines by adults and older children. They are the mirror to Tool; once human, now behaving like animals, maiming and killing.

The Drowned Cities is an excellent novel, the writing exceptional and unique to young adult literature. The gore in the novel makes it suitable for older teens and adults. Watch the book trailer:


For a more thorough insight into Bacigalupi's writing and this novel in particular, readers are directed to an interview the author did with Brit Mandelo at Tor.com entitled "War, Killer Children, and More: An Interview with Paolo Bacigalupi".

Book Details:
The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi
New York: Little, Brown and Company 2012
434 pp.

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