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What Doesn’t Drown You Makes You Stronger

A review of The Drowned Cities by Paulo Bacigalupi, which goes to show you intensity in ten cities might be exciting, but it doesn't always make a good boyfriend.

What Doesn’t Drown You Makes You Stronger

BOOK REPORT for The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Cover Story: What Happened?
BFF Charm: Eventually
Swoonworthy Scale: 0
Talky Talk: Hard Core
Bonus Factors: Loyalty, China
Relationship Status: Let's Just Be Friends

Cover Story: What Happened?

I L-O-V-E-D LOVED the cover of Shipbreaker -- graphic, bold, representative of the story. But this one? Who put the giant half-face at the top? And who chose the fantasy-novel typeface? I like the gritty, over-exposed images, the Washington Monument standing illuminated in the middle of hell, but it's not enough to make up for the ridiculousness of sky-eyes up there. This book says, "Hi, I'm a thriller about mutant norovirus you'll buy to read on the plane because it's either me or James Patterson," not what it really is -- a serious book about the serious hell happening right now on our planet.

The Deal:

Mahlia's a castoff, left behind by her Chinese father when his country abandoned their peacekeeping mission and left the United States to warlords and armies of preteen and teenaged boys. Since Mouse saved her from being dismembered by the Army of God soldiers, the two have been inseparable. They've put up with abuse from the frightened people of Banyan Town who don't trust war maggots -- especially a one-handed castoff -- no matter what the doctor who took them in says. When their town is invaded by United Patriot Front soldiers on the hunt for a half-man, half-animal killing machine and razed to the ground, Mahlia flees and leaves Mouse behind. Faced with the loyalty of the augment, Tool (remember him from Shipbreaker?), Mahlia has to reconsider the meaning of survival.

BFF Charm: Eventually

I feel a little guilty about making the kids work for their BFF charm, when they've had such a shit life. It's not their fault they've grown up in a world that's environmentally devastated and overrun by killers and warlords. Mahlia's a tough kid, and that makes her hard to be around sometimes. I do love Mouse, and ache for everything he has to experience, and Tool was one of my favorite characters from Shipbreaker, so it was great to see him in more depth. Besides, everyone loves an underdog (ha!) (also, "I don't"), right? I happily extended a BFF charm to Ocho, the teenaged sergeant by the end, too.

Swoonworthy Scale: 0

Yeah. What part of, "No really, this book is about hell" = romance?

Talky Talk: Hard Core

Bacigalupi doesn't play around, y'all. This book isn't fun -- it's about children killing children, warlords directing wars using xenophobic or religious rhetoric no one understands or questions. It's about destruction for the sake of destruction, and killing for the sake of killing, and arms dealers who exploit the weak to make a profit off of the insatiable war machine. Rape, maiming, burning, forced prostitution, drugs, exploitation at all levels. So the language reflects this, in ways that often made me cringe. "Come on, half-bar. Let's get your prick red."

But what was missing, what I really wanted, was some acknowledgement that the world Bacigalupi has built is not fantasy. It's not a fictional dystopian future. It really exists -- in Afghanistan, in Rwanda, in Senegal, in Nepal. There are children all over the world who are recruited and forced to kill, and turned into killers. There are warlords who use drugs and violence and crazy-ass rhetoric to keep people terrified into submission. There are cities and villages and whole countries that are being scavenged and poisoned by greedy corporations who don't care about the environmental impact as long as they make money. I love a good allegory and subtle storytelling as much as the next armchair critic, but I ached for an acknowledgment of the reality of this book. Somewhere. Anywhere. Yes, I do believe fiction is often a better medium than nonfiction for making a point, but I also think in order to be truly effective, it needs to at least give a nod of greeting to the reality it's trying to expose.

Bonus Factor: Loyalty

The heart of the story is loyalty -- the augmented animals (part human, part hyena/wolf/dog) and their genetically programmed loyalty, Mouse's loyalty to Doctor Mahfouz and Mahlia, Mahlia's conflicting loyalties.

Bonus Factor: China

I loved the way China is portrayed in the book, as a rich, peaceful country who descends unasked on the destructive United States in order to "keep the peace." It's a nice twist, and good to read things from a non-U.S.-centric point of view.

Casting Call:

Amandla Stenberg as Mahlia

She's done angelic and sweet. Wouldn't you like to see her take on a character who's like a more fucked-up Katniss?

Relationship Status: Let's Just Be Friends

Book, I had a god time with your cousin Shipbreaker (or was that you? Or the author? This metaphor is already too clumsy). Anyway, I liked Shipbreaker enough to give you a shot -- I wasn't ready to propose marriage or anything, but I liked its style and thought it was interesting. And I feel the same way about you -- you're clever, and passionate about a cause, and compelling, and articulate (something I'm increasingly not) -- but at the end of the day, you're just not my type. I really enjoy our discussions (and arguments), but I can't be in a relationship that's all intense and serious all the time. I'd love to stay friends, and I really mean that.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my review copy from Little, Brown.  I received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review (dammit!). The Drowned Cities will be available May 1.

Meghan Miller's photo About the Author: Meghan is an erstwhile librarian in exile from Texas and writer for Forever Young Adult. She loves books, cooking and homey things like knitting and vintage cocktails. Although she’s around books all the time, she doesn’t get to read as much as she’d like.