I read Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi last year (note: I have to look up how to spell his name literally every time I want to talk about him. I always misremember it as Bacaluigi.). I wasn’t expecting to like it; it sounded very grim and dark and I don’t generally go for such bleakness. But it won the 2011 Printz award, so I felt like I had to read it so other librarians wouldn’t judge me. (Teens, adults sometimes have to read books they don’t want to read, too.) So I read it. It’s well done, if you like very dark dystopian futures. Which I don’t. So, I probably wouldn’t have picked up the book’s recent prequel, The Drowned Cities, except for one little thing. The Drowned Cities promised more information about Tool, my favorite character from Ship Breaker.
I’ll be honest: I don’t even remember the names of the human characters from Ship Breaker. Probably they had really bleak dystopian names. Whatever. I was most interested in Tool, the augmented “half-man.” He’d been genetically engineered to be a perfect, loyal soldier… but somehow, had gained independence. That, to me, was a much more compelling narrative than whatever was going on with the human kids in Ship Breaker. But Tool was basically a side character in Ship Breaker, and there was little about his history.
The Drowned Cities gave us more backstory on Tool, but still kept him frustratingly at the edge of the narrative. Instead, the story alternates between Mouse and Mahlia (I remember their names!), two kids living in the jungle on the outskirts of the Drowned Cities (which seems to be the upper Mississippi Delta area). It’s a grim dystopian existence; Mahlia’s right hand was cut off by soldiers, leaving her with only her “lucky left.” She’d have lost the other hand if it weren’t for Mouse’s intervention. Then the worst happens and the soldiers burn their village. Mahlia escapes, but Mouse gets conscripted into the United Patriotic Front army. Mahlia forges an uneasy alliance with Tool and sets off to rescue him.
The Drowned Cities is still very grim. Mouse and Mahlia make a point of commenting on how unusual it is to see full-grown adults, since few children survive to adulthood. Still–Mouse and Mahlia are both tough, and it’s easy to imagine them making it out of the Drowned Cities, to someplace better. And Tool, well, we already know that he makes it to Ship Breaker.
Overall, The Drowned Cities is an intense, exciting read with complex characters. Plus, more information about everyone’s favorite genetically engineered fighting creature, Tool!
Reviewed by: Teen librarian Renata.
Recommended for: fans of dystopias, even if you didn’t read Ship Breaker.