The Drowned Cities is a story
about people doing good in a bad world without really understanding why. It's set in a
near-future where ecological collapse has reduced the cities of North America to
swampland, and the resulting social collapse has left isolated villages at the mercy of
evangelical warlords and their vicious child armies. Gangs of boy soldiers wander the
Drowned Cities, fighting each other with hand-me-down weapons, mutilating the civilians
and ransacking the villages that get in their way. Set in America, this might seem like a
dystopian nightmare to us; it's worth bearing in mind that in some parts of the
present-day world, this would be considered business as usual.
Mahlia is the by-blow daughter of one of the Chinese peacekeepers who
tried and failed to help post-crisis America and who gave up and left it to the warlords.
This marks her out as a particular target for hostility from soldiers and civilians alike.
She lost her right hand to an Army of God patrol, and owes her life to Mouse, a fugitive
boy who distracted the patrol long enough for her to get away. Mahlia and Mouse have found
shelter in the house of an altruistic doctor, but their refuge is threatened when a squad
of United Patriot Front boys sets up camp in their village. The squad are tracking Tool, a
bioengineered soldier turned rogue who has gone to ground in the nearby woods. When Mouse
is recruited by the UPF, Mahlia must decide whether to rescue him or follow Tool out of
the Drowned Cities.
How much you enjoy this book will depend, I suspect, on how much you're
prepared to accept Bacigalupi's thumb tipping the balance of the character's actions. It
isn't so much of a leap for Mahlia, despite her brutal past, to stick her neck out for
Mouse given what he's previously done for her. It's more of a leap for a hardened, highly
trained war-bastard like Tool to go out of his way on behalf of two kids he's only just
met. Any of their actions could be explained as little glimmering fragments of The Good In
All Of Us, but equally they could be explained as the author fudging it for the
convenience of his story; your mileage may vary.
More generally, the book is pacy, the prose well constructed and the story
engaging, but I felt it lacked the zing of The Windup Girl, Bacigalupi's
award-winning debut. It has depth, with several tantalising morsels of backstory involving
the Chinese peacekeepers and hints of a wider world thriving off the pickings of Third
World America. There's just something lacking. This isn't a disappointing book it's
a good if not exactly uplifting read but it's a poor cousin to its predecessor.
Bacigalupi has built his world well, but he hasn't yet built on the promise of his debut.