Review: The Drowned Cities
Young Adult fiction has really evolved from what it used to be. There are a lot more options than there were when I was a kid. It’s not just the scope of books that has increased but the depth as well. Authors are examining mature themes that really didn’t seem so present years ago. Then again it could just be me, but I really don’t remember any YA books that examined the plight of war refugees in dystopian societies. I have to applaud authors like Paolo Bacigalupi for writing books like THE DROWNED CITIES (Amazon). Teenagers do not like being condescended to in the least and THE DROWNED CITIES offers some very dark, adult themes.
War orphans Mahlia and Mouse spend their days just trying to survive. The two live in a town on the outskirts of the Drowned Cities where armies of child soldiers led by demagogues vie for control of the ruins. They live a stable life but the threat of encroaching war is pervasive. That is, until they cross paths with the genetically engineered war machine named Tool.
So the new trend in YA fiction is “dystopian” and THE DROWNED CITIES has to be one of the most dystopian novels I’ve read all year. What separates Bacigalupi’s companion novel to the award winning SHIP BREAKER (EBR Review) from the rest of the dystopian YA fiction is just how real it is. This is a novel that explores the banality of evil and the horrors of war. The thing is, these aren’t professional soldiers caught in the meat grinder. These are children. The armies fighting over the sunken remains of America’s capitol are composed of kids plucked from the comfort of their homes and bathed in blood and fire. It’s sad and disgusting and it’s real. Obviously it isn’t happening right now in America but it is a fact of life in other places across the globe.
Bacigalupi does a commendable job writing about the dreadfulness of such a pointless conflict. Violence is never once glorified though there is an abundance of it. One of the reasons I felt like THE HUNGER GAMES (Amazon) was such a failure is that it utterly failed to reflect upon the toll of violence upon the characters and the world they inhabited. This is not so with THE DROWNED CITIES. The toll of fighting is apparent from the moment readers are introduced to protagonist Mahlia. This is a girl whose entire life has revolved around, and been demolished by, war. Mahlia is shunned because of her heritage. Her father was a peacekeeper involved in the suppression of warlords throughout the Drowned Cities. Because of his allegiance, Mahlia has had her hand removed by those who consider her a traitor and collaborator.
Mahlia is a strong protagonist. She is a survivor. She quotes and applies the military doctrines of Sun Tzu to her daily life. She has no surviving family and only one friend, fellow orphan Mouse. Mahlia is a strong protagonist but not necessarily likable. She has flaws that are to be expected, but her personality kept me from ever developing a connection. Mouse is the more likable of the two but there is not enough time spent following his perspective for him to develop further than first impressions. Tool, the genetically engineered war machine, is pleasurable to read about because of his unique mindset. Tool was born a slave and a weapon. His genetic makeup consists of all sorts of apex predators and he has only ever known killing. Despite Tool’s remarkable nature he also fails to develop past initial impressions. The relationship that develops between Tool and Mahlia is of the predictable, beauty & the beast variation minus the romance.
The real standout character of THE DROWNED CITIES is Sergeant Ocho. Ocho is a war orphan much like Mahlia and Mouse but for the fact that he is a child soldier. Ocho has grown up, not avoiding war parties, but conducting them. He has fought and killed and lost the innocence of childhood at an early age. No matter what he has seen or done Ocho is still a human being underneath all the layers of indoctrination. This is a sympathetic character that adequately displays the evils man is capable of, written in a YA setting. This is a mature character in ways that Katniss Everdeen could never be.
THE DROWNED CITIES isn’t a fun read. It is deep. It is dark. It is though provoking. But it isn’t exactly fun. With novels of such heavy tone a little humor and levity can go a long way toward buoying the reader. Brief moments of happy respite are crucial to emphasize the bleakness of dystopia and these are largely missing. I wouldn’t take THE DROWNED CITIES as a fun beach read. I would recommend that the book be discussed in a classroom setting. If a civics teacher wants to promote critical thinking and discussion on matters of war and politics I can see where this would be the perfect catalyst. After all, Bacigalupi’s near-future America is scary because it is so plausible. At a time where political division is at an all time high we are frighteningly close to fulfilling this fictional representation.
If you enjoyed Bacigalupi’s THE WINDUP GIRL (EBR Review) and SHIP BREAKER you will most assuredly appreciate THE DROWNED CITIES. If you found those stories to be too heavy and dark for your liking then chances are this is not the book for you. If anything THE DROWNED CITIES strikes me as even darker than THE WIND-UP GIRL just because the characters are so young and the setting strikes so close to home. I recommend this to fans of dystopian fiction (young and old alike) as well as professors of social studies who desire to spark a dialogue with their students.
- Recommended Age: 16+
- Language: More profanity than I've experienced in any other YA fiction novel
- Violence: More violence than I've experience in any other YA fiction novel, and don't forget that these are kids killing kids
- Sex: Prostitutes mentioned by the term of "nailshed girls" but sex is only vaguely mentioned