The humanitarian atrocities of certain regions in Africa are well-documented. Warlords piling on top of warlords, all fighting for self-perceived causes or just a moment of megolomaniacal glory, much of the continent’s 20 and 21st century history, with the introduction of western weapons, is bound up in bloodshed of the most appalling, cyclical, anti-humanist variety. For every beautiful, smiling face a person sees in a tourist brochure or UNICEF ad, there is a child soldier lying dead in a ditch. Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2012 YA novel The Drowned Cities, follow up to the successful Ship Breaker, captures precisely such a violent time in an American future history. A grim, harrowing account, a teenage girl fights to save a friend who once saved her in a land turned upside down by internecine war and feigned patriotism.
The novel is the story of Mahlia, a half Chinese, half American girl left behind in the drowned cities (a post-flood, tropical version of the Chesapeake Bay area) after the death of her mother and father’s return to China to escape the partisan violence which followed upon America’s fragmentation in the aftermath of environmental disaster. Caught by a passing warlord, Mahlia’s hand is chopped off. With her head planned next, a boy named Mouse steps in at the last moment to save her. The pair escaping the warlord, they eventually find themselves living with and assisting a doctor in a remote jungle village called Banyantown. Only partially out of the warzone, however, distant guns can be heard throughout the day and soldiers occasionally tramp through. But when a highly-prized escapee finds himself in their backyard one day, it’s only a matter of time before a whole army comes looking to collect. Matters drawing to a head in Banyantown as the soldiers carouse and trample what semblance of civilized life remains to the village, Mouse and Mahlia’s have their worlds spun further out of control.
A story about child soldiers and perpetual war, The Drowned Cities looks at the realities of revolutionary army life, fighting for illogical causes, and indoctrination through force. The warlords of the novel speak the same language yet find a way to disagree over differences which serve only their individual quests for power. It goes without saying needless violence and death the result. Little individuating the varying militias —Army of God, United Patriot Front, and others—warring for what’s left of the US save the colors on their flags, they nevertheless lay waste to life and home in the name of a fight justified only by the fight itself. People are killed, crops are destroyed, homes are laid to waste, and living conditions continually worsen as the single-minded leaders stake delirious claims to patriotism, rant propaganda, and double-talk in the ‘best interests’ of everyone. As a result, the imagined world of The Drowned Cities is far, far from a place of ease and comfort. Inspired by real life stories of war torn Africa, it is the bleakest setting Bacigalupi has yet imagined.
Overly grim? Too violent and bloody? Starting with his short fiction and working its way into his novels, Bacigalupi has been continually dependent on sensationalism to tell his tales. The Drowned Cities may be the most visceral yet. A sustained press of violence and the threat of violence, Bacigalupi never lets his characters, and by default the reader, forget the mortal and corporeal aspects of existence. Soldiering, warlords, and inane fighting at the forefront, it’s certainly understandable to include a decent proportion of gore and guts. But there is such a quantity of battles and torture, injury and death in The Drowned Cities, by the end of the novel the reader is almost desensitized. As a result, the penultimate scene—a scene which is intended to pull the heart strings—merely tugs at them, the death just another in the crowd. By contrast, S.E. Hinton’s YA offering The Outisders is nicely balanced between action, transitory scenes, and the reflections of Pony Boy on the state of his friends and what’s best for his future in their world of gang violence. As such, I can’t help but feel that if Bacigalupi had included the same balance, the narrative would be less wearying and conclusion packed a stronger punch.
Regardless how brutal and rugged it is presented, the setting of The Drowned Cities, in all its human ugliness, is thrown at Mahlia’s feet, becoming a labyrinth she must navigate to stay alive. Though a strong, female protagonist, she nevertheless comes across a realistic young woman, that is, rather than as an improbably spunky YA teen who does no wrong and gets the bad guys in the end as is seen in other YA novels. Less than certain and often saddened by her prospects for the future, she grows in confidence and wisdom through the course of the story, slowly honing her decisions and behavior to a path that both works with and against the situation—not an easy feat for a girl with one hand. And at the conclusion, though still possessing a healthy dose of skepticism and fear (the situation simply unable to be fully distanced), she is decisive enough to take the calculated risk necessary to change her life—hopefully for the good. It is thus Mahlia’s character which stands out the most, and comes as the novel’s strongest point of recommendation.
(The most mysterious character of The Drowned Cities, like Ship Breaker, is Tool. Half man, half animal, his words of wisdom all so often are overridden by actions of violence and strange imprecations for power. Possessing more than a hint of the classic epic fantasy warrior (brains are equal match for his brawn in fights and battles), nothing seems to touch the brute—neither bullet or sympathy as his story evolves. I assume the next novel in the series will likewise feature the augmented man.)
Like Ship Breaker, The Drowned Cities takes advantage of the YA label to sneak in more than a few plot gaps and does an occasional bit of hand waving to move scenes along. Lengthy conversations in the open while soldiers hunt nearby is not plausible. The start of the boat trip and (the lack of an) end to the boat trip stand out. Taking the story in the hostage direction, and then abandoning it halfway is jarring. And the usage of wolf musk is as contrived as can be. But again, YA novel—or at least label, so fair enough.
In the end, The Drowned Cities is Bacigalupi’s darkest, most intense book yet. America broken into political pieces, warlords who press soldiers of all ages into their causes roam the land fighting for the crumbs, leaving smoldering chaos in their rearview. The teen who must survive this scarred landscape one the reader’s heart goes out to, it is her development which keys the novel. The plot presented less coherently than that of Ship Breaker, what it lacks in structure and motivation it makes up for in principles. Capturing perfectly the mindset one must have to willingly be involved in perpetual war for an ideology’s sake—the parallel dogma, the double talk, the hazing, the brainwashing—are visceral and dark and offset by the concepts underpinning the teen girl’s coming of age. Unfortunately, real world Africa is still worse.