Although The Drowned Cities is marketed as a sequel to Ship Breaker, it can stand as a completely independent novel, with only one character from Ship Breaker appearing again in The Drowned Cities.
Set in the same unspecified future point in which Ship Breaker took place—a future where resources have become scarce, governments have collapsed, and the gap between the rich and the poor has become almost insurmountably wide—The Drowned Cities focuses on a young girl named Mahlia and a young boy called Mouse in the waterlogged ruins of Washington, D.C.
A masterfully crafted setting
As he did in his previous novels, Bacigalupi proves to be a master of setting. His talent for using a few carefully chosen words to bring his setting to life is simply unrivaled by most other authors I’ve read. Although there are hints all throughout The Drowned Cities that this world is same one in which Ship Breaker took place, the half-drowned remains of America’s capital city is an environment unlike anything Bacigalupi has tackled before; and he paints it with such a degree of detail that you’ll wonder if he’s been to our future himself. Bacigalupi is never so blunt as to tell us exactly what landmarks his characters are encountering, as they know little of the modern era that we live in, which they refer to as the Accelerated Age; but his details never leave it unclear to the reader. It’s downright chilling to see some of the most famous buildings in America reduced to meaningless hideouts for self-styled warlords in a flooded city, but it always feels completely plausible. Our era is nothing more than an ancient, half-understood history to the characters in The Drowned Cities, and the things we built and cherished are nothing more than the crumbling backdrop to the perpetual wars and power plays between the rival factions that have risen from the ruins. To put it simply, The Drowned Cities contains one of the most sharply realized settings I’ve encountered in fiction—as you read, you’ll feel the squish of mud in your boots, the howling of genetically-engineered coywolves in the distance, and the sear of hot metal against your flesh. No one creates setting like Bacigalupi; this is the work of a storyteller who is an absolute master of his craft.
Is this really YA?
The Drowned Cities is marketed for young adults, as was Ship Breaker, but Bacigalupi once again pushes the boundary of that demographic to its absolute limit—and maybe just a little bit beyond. The Hunger Games sparked a fair amount of controversy with its depictions of violence between children, but The Drowned Cities takes the same issue and brings it to a whole new level; children are snatched up by warring military factions and turned into soldiers or killed. There’s no question that this is a book for mature readers, and Bacigalupi refuses to back away from depictions of brutal violence—it’s part of the world that The Drowned Cities takes place in. It’s not gratuitous, it’s just real. This is a future where everyone is vying for power, and it’s through violence that they get it.
In addition to the violence, Bacigalupi steers away from the standards of YA, having multiple viewpoint characters. The story skips back and forth between different characters with every chapter, and yet each character’s story is so intertwined with each of the others that their viewpoints always feel relevant to the main plot. Bacigalupi also proves to be incredibly skilled at altering the reader’s perception of each character depending on whose eyes we’re looking through; few authors can pull off these switches with such fluidity, and Bacigalupi is one of the best.
Completely satisfying, beginning to end
The more books I read, the more I find that modern authors seem to struggle with endings; it’s usually with a book’s climax that I find myself most dissatisfied. Bacigalupi, however, knows how to do it right—one of the few who do, it seems. The opening chapters of The Drowned Cities are engaging and action-packed. While the story slows down a bit after that, Bacigalupi keeps the tension and the stakes high through the multiple viewpoints. It doesn’t take long for things to ramp up again, however, and once the book gets going, it doesn’t let up until the end—and what an ending it is. Bacigalupi’s previous books have all had very satisfying climaxes, but this is perhaps his best one yet. At once both explosive and emotional, with characters you care about on both sides of the conflict, the climax of The Drowned Cities contains some of the most intense pages that I’ve read all year. And when I finally closed the book, I felt something that I don’t feel all that often: completely, totally satisfied with what I had just read.
Why should you read this book?
Bacigalupi is one of the few authors that I can comfortably rely on to produce top-notch material with every new book, but he really has outdone himself with The Drowned Cities, creating something truly remarkable. While The Drowned Cities may not achieve the complexity of Bacigalupi’s debut novel The Windup Girl, and while it may not be as instantly absorbing as Ship Breaker, it’s nothing less than a stellar book. The Drowned Cities is arguably Bacigalupi’s best novel to date, and without a doubt one of the best novels of the year—you owe it to yourself to read this book. You won’t be disappointed.