The Drowned Cities is the second in what looks to be a series of young-adult dystopian novels by Paolo Bacigalupi set in the post-deluge American South, following the award-winning Ship Breaker in 2010. Bacigalupi is one of my favorite of a crop of new, young science fiction writers, and he doesn’t disappoint in The Drowned Cities.
It’s the story of an adolescent girl, Mahlia, and a boy called Mouse, two semi-feral survivors in the seemingly endless civil war that is demolishing what is left of the Southern United States. The waters and the temperature have risen, driving the coastline far inland and flooding the nearest city, which we discover is the remains of Washington, D.C. Private, ideologically driven armies are fighting over the few resources left, selling the looted treasures and marble building-blocks of the nation’s former capital in exchange for bullets with which to kill their enemies and medicine to heal their own injured soldiers.
Those soldiers are mostly children Mahlia’s and Mouse’s age or younger. The warlords fighting for territory and salvage rights – chiefly the United Patriotic Front and the Army of God – enslave able-bodied adults to work and forcibly recruit children to fight. And as if that weren’t enough to look out for, genetic engineering and the changing climate have wrought new predators: a coyote-wolf hybrid called coywolv, panthers, poisonous snakes.
Mahlia and Mouse live in a village of sorts, a warren of mostly burned-out structures somewhere in D.C.’s former suburbs, assisting and being somewhat protected by a pacifist physician named Mahfouz. Mahlia helps the vision-impaired doctor treat other villagers, despite the fact that she has only one hand. She was mutilated by Army of God soldiers because she is the bastard child of a Drowned Cities woman and a Chinese peacekeeper now fled back to his homeland. Mouse saved her from further torture and death, which is why they’re inseparable now. But they are flung brutally apart when something brings UPF soldiers to their village. That something is a genetically engineered soldier – part human, part dog, hyena, tiger and more – named Tool. Tool’s escape from a UPF prison into these kids’ lives is the catalyst for the novel’s conflict and action.
Bacigalupi deftly handles characterizations, plot and action in this fast-paced book. It’s no secret these days that young people are drawn to dystopian tales because such a world, in which the characters must navigate their way through terrifying situations in which they are powerless, pretty much describes what it’s like to be young today. Readers can see themselves in characters such as Mahlia and Mouse, whose good hearts are continually tested and tempted by the world and other people in it, and who make inevitable mistakes that hurt others, and learn to take responsibility for their actions, words and thoughts.
The author makes some good choices, particularly by not revealing until later that the soldiers in the first chapter when Tool makes his escape are children. It causes the reader to totally revise his or her mental picture of this book’s setting, and to become open to further fantastic descriptions of it. A lot of the book’s situations – child soldiers, famine, genetic engineering, civil war – are drawn from today’s headlines, and there are allusions to today’s political problems and the ramifications that they could have in the future. The Drowned Cities is aimed at readers age 14 and up – the author does not sugarcoat the language. Violence is clearly described but not glorified.
(Little, Brown: 2012)