Tool of War is the final installment in Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker trilogy. The last installment, The Drowned Cities was written over five years ago, making remembering the story line challenging. The series is set in post-apocalyptic America which has been destroyed by civil war and global climate change that resulted in many coastal cities destroyed by rising seas. Many parts of the continent have descended into brutal conflict with the use of child soldiers. This third installment focuses on Tool, known as Karta-Kul, a half man, half beast, an augment, genetically designed for war and for blind obedience.
High above the Pacific Ocean in the dirigible Annapurna, General Caroa hunts a specific augment. His analyst, Arial Jones, a brilliant, young but new recruit is eager to please her senior officer. Jones works in the Mercier Corporation's Global Strategic Intelligence Center and she has tracked the augment Caroa is seeking to the Drowned Cities. Caroa orders Jones to fire six Havoc 5's at Tool in order to kill him. While the missiles with their incredible firepower and chemicals completely destroy everything and everyone, Tool at the last minute senses the missiles and attempts to escape.
Meanwhile on board the Raker, a clipper sitting in the harbour, Mahalia is thrown onto the deck from the blast. Mahalia had been supervising the loading of artwork onto the clipper when the blast occurred. The palace is leveled, blackened and on fire, the marble steps liquefying due to the heat. Mahalia realizes her old friend Tool has been killed in the attack and grieves deeply because he helped save her and restart her life. She also knows they have to get the Raker out of the harbour because Tool's surviving soldiers will try to take the ship for their own. Captain Almadi reluctantly agrees to sail the damaged ship up the coast, even though a category three hurricane is bearing down on them. Tool having sensed the attack, dove into the waters by the palace. Although on fire and terribly injured by shrapnel he manages to cling to the clipper ship as it sails out of the harbour.
On the Annapurna, General Caroa celebrates what he hopes is the end of a nightmare - the death of the augment known as Blood and the hope of a promotion to Mercier's Executive Committee. But Caroa's celebration is short-lived as Junior Analyst Jones calls him to the Strategic Intelligence Center on the command deck. There Jones shows Caroa evidence that the augment has unbelievably survived the Havoc missile attack. By tracking the augment's heat signature, they see him beneath a clipper ship. Caroa orders Jones to hit the ship but she tells him they have no remaining missiles. When the video feed breaks up due to the storm, Caroa orders Jones to find the ship so they can destroy it.
Tool has lost his pack, the soldier boys he commanded in securing the Drowned Cities. As the storm deepens and the ship begins to founder, Tool hauls himself aboard. There he sees his old pack, Mahalia, Ocho and others attempting to save their ship, struggling with the mast, unable to raise the sail. Tool with his brute strength saves the ship. Eventually the Raker anchors in a small cove, and Mahalia attempts to treat Tool's horrific wounds. She uses all the StimGrowth packs and liters of cell knitters on Tool. Ocho believes Tool will die but Mahalia tells him this is the kind of war Tool was designed for. On the deck of the Raker, Tool tells Mahalia and Ocho that Mercier who owns him is trying to kill him and that they are in danger. He agrees to stay with them until they arrive at Seascape Boston where he will seek out medical help.
On the Annapurna, Jones' conscience is troubled over the innocent lives destroyed in the Havoc attack. Determined to limit the casualties while still doing her job she discovers the identity of the ship and its probable destination. When Caroa orders the Strike Raptors, Jones finds a way to prevent them from being used and instead convinces Caroa to use the Stitch and Ditch kill squads for a cleaner kill.
At Seascape Boston, Mahalia, Ocho, Stick and Stork and Tool hide out in an ancient brownstone while Van gets the meds Tool needs to heal. After a Stitch and Ditch squad take out the wrong augment, Mahalia and Ocho realize Tool is still being tracked. Tool is beginning to heal from the meds but he is still not himself. He tells Mahalia that she and her crew need to leave before Mercier attacks again. However, it is too late as their building is quickly surrounded. Although Mahalia is determined to fight alongside Tool, he knows this is a fight they cannot survive.
Can Tool overcome his conditioning to fight for the freedom he believes his kind deserve, to protect the humans who are his pack and end the conflict between himself and his creator, General Caroa forever?
Tool of War completes the Ship Breaker trilogy by continuing the sage of Tool, the half man-half beast or augment created by General Caroa. The Ship Breaker series has offered readers the opportunity to consider several contemporary issues such as the use of child soldiers in war, the global influence of large corporations and the potentially destabilizing effects of catastrophic global climate change. In Tool of War the issue of genetic manipulation of embryos in which human embryos are grossly modified using various animal DNA is considered. In the novel, such creatures are called "augments" of which there are many types (for example gorilla-dominant augments) and are used as combat soldiers and slaves, although society doesn't regard them as such. They do the grunt work in the post-apocalyptic society of the series. "They were everywhere: helping ships off-load freight, hauling strong boxes of cash for merchant transfers, muscling clear paths for corporate princesses. The augments stood sentry outside the embassies of the trading companies, and knelt in temples alongside humans..." In Tool of War both humans and augments have been conditioned to treat one another a certain way with humans believing they are completely under control and the augments genetically altered and conditioned to be loyal unto death. That is until General Caroa was tasked to create a "better" augment.
Caroa designed, bred and trained Tool because battles with military augments were often ending in stalemates. So under the direction of Mercier, new, magnificent warriors, "Stronger, better, smarter, faster." were developed. "We needed creatures that were hypercompetent. Natural engines of strategy, tactics, learning, violence, stamina, fearlessness. Tolerant of poisons and chemical attacks. Resistant to fire and cold and fear and pain..." One of the best was an augment Caroa named Blood but who also goes by other names, Karta-Kul and Tool. Unlike previous iterations of augments, Tool has the ability to break from his conditioning to be loyal and he also has the ability to influence other augments to renege on their conditioning. Caroa recognizes the danger; the augments could then begin to turn on humanity.
General Caroa reveals to Analyst Jones that Tool has already turned on him once. Jones doesn't believe this because "Augments are obedient! They can't break free of that! They pine and die without their masters. Everyone knows---" But Caroa states, "What if everything we know is wrong?...Think, Jones, of all the augments on the Annapurna right now. Our incorruptible, fearless Fast Attack Claws and Fists. Imagine all that loyalty. Gone." As Caroa tells Jones about Tool, "If our friend recovers sufficiently, I fear that we will bear witness to humanity's extinction." However, at this point, Caroa notes that Tool "...is not operating as he should...He has capacities that he is not using, and I don't know why. Is it a ruse? Some trick? Or maybe he's lost the skill?"
Unfortunately for General Caroa and the Annapurna, Tool is able to tap into his abilities. As he begins to recover from his injuries, Tool suspects "Something his creators had done to him, to ensure control." is preventing him from accessing his strength. "Tool felt new blood surging through the fibers of his muscles, filling him with strength. But still it was walled off from him, as if thick sea ice covered the ocean of his capabilities, and he was left peering through to it, knowing the power that lurked beneath the surface, but unable to chip through to its depths. Something held him back from using his true strength."
However, Tool begins to rebel against his conditioning but he finds it difficult to overcome his genes and conditioning. His inner conflict becomes the main theme of this novel. When he is attacked in Seascape, Tool fights his intense desire to surrender. " Tool was seized with a powerful urge to surrender...He could actually feel his muscles fighting to make him surrender...As if he were possessed by the will of his masters." He succeeds but his struggle costs his human friends their lives. He rescues Mahalia and tells her, "There will be no ore running, or hiding. I have run from Mercier for years...Now I will hunt, as I was always meant to. Now I will war, as I was designed to." Mahalia questions if Tool will be able to overcome the conditioning bred into him, despite Tool's assertions that he will not succumb again.
In Seascape, Tool begins to see the augments as they really are, as slaves."They lived among humans as slaves, and thought of themselves as anything but. Disgusting that they did not see themselves for what they were." Jayant Patel, Nita's father insists that Tool is property and that since he is owned by Mercier he needs to be returned. Tool however refuses to comply and demonstrates why Mercier fears him - he is able to resist his training and is capable of influencing other augments to do the same. "My creators do not fear my individual rebellion. They fear the uprising that I will inevitably lead." This suggests that Tool is determined to lead the augments in an uprising.
How augments are seen by humans in this post-apocalyptic world is revealed in a conversation between Nailer and Nita. Nailer tells Nita that Tool is unlike other augments, because he views humans as people, "Not masters. Not owners. Just people." However Nita realizes that humans do not view augments the same way. "...You treat your augments well, but they aren't people. And they don't ask to be treated just like people. They don't demand things the way people demand things..." This is what makes Tool different.
After the situation between Global Patel and Mercier is resolved, Nita's views regarding the augments change. Designed and trained to do tasks that normal humans could not, Nita and her fellow humans never gave the augments a second thought. "Now she couldn't help feeling there was something wrong with the very language used to describe augments. Words like ownership came easily when a creature was grown from handpicked cells, developed in a creche, and purchase from a selection of other augments." She notes that despite their animal characteristics, they feel loss and success and she acknowledges they are people. This leads her to agree to help Tool.
Tool knows he will never be at peace unless he destroys Caroa. Tool's final confrontation with Caroa is filled with uncertainty as Tool struggles between his conditioning, his love for Caroa and his desire to be free. It is graphic and brutal. But when that is accomplished, Tool feels the weight of Caroa's death and he admits to himself, "The killing of Caroa had not been easy on his mind." In many ways Tool, half man-half beast is more human than Caroa and those who created him. He spares Jones, realizing that like him, she is struggling to survive, that she is a flawed creature too, and to free Mahalia, Ocho and the others from the Raker. He is by far the most interesting character in this series, and evolved into the focus of the novels.
Tool of War is a brutal telling of the cat and mouse game between General Caroa and Tool. It's an unrelenting dark story with no comic relief. Yet the novel ends on a hopeful note. Does Tool lead his rebellion against humanity? We don't know and aren't told in the Epilogue.
Bacigalupi, brings back several characters from the first book, Shipbreaker. Nailer Lopez now an engineer on a tanker is shocked to once again encounter Tool. Tool who helped Nailer is satisfied to see that Nailer has grown into a strong, assured young human as has his friend Nita Patel, the rich girl he saved in Ship Breaker. Although they have change much, Tool places his hope in them.
Tool of War offers a great conclusion to the Ship Breaker series. Bacigalupi is a master storyteller who just does not disappoint!
Tool of War by Paolo Bacigalupi
New York: Little, Brown and Company 2017