The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi is one of those novels that I read, fall in love with and then try to explain to others why I loved it so and they will stare mutely back at me as if I have simply gone mad. Perhaps I have. But I will try to explain it anyway. This is called a young readers book but that is not accurate. It carries in its dystopian, alternate reality world, themes of maturity and survival that bring to thought Lord of the Flies and The Road.
With the Chinese peace keepers driven away, America has fallen into a tribal warfare. Conflicting factions battling for control of what is left of what once was. Along the eastern seaboard, the Drowned Cities still stand. Ruins yet still surviving. On the outskirts of the cities lay the small towns. People living in fear of whatever band of outlaws or soldiers fall upon them next. For in this violent, brutal and dark future, they are one and the same.
Young teenage refugees, Mahlia and Mouse live in the jungles outside the Drowned Cities. The land having taken back the country from the once beautiful cities, as they try to build a life with their guardian; the villages’ only doctor. But Mahlia is a half-breed, her father a Chinese General and her mother native. When the Chinese left, Mahlia’s mother thought the General would take them with him, but he abandoned them and what happened next Mahlia has spent much of her life trying to forget. But the stump at the end of her arm, where her hand had once been, is a constant reminder.
All she has now is her friend, Mouse.
Tool is a monster. A beast created for war. A super soldier of destruction. He is one of the few that remain. He was engineered to kill himself once his master died. But Tool did not. Tool yearns for freedom. For a life to call his own. To leave behind war and blood and carnage. To be free. When he escapes from the Drowned Cities, he heads to the jungles, where he hopes to hide among the other beasts. But the Drowned Cities does not want to let him go so easily and they send forth a unit of soldier boys to bring him back.
Mahlia and Mouse find Tool, bleeding and dying in the swamp and in the beast, they see a ticket to true freedom. But when Mahlia returns to the village for the medication to heal the monster, she finds an even greater terror waiting. Soldier boys. They have taken over the village and they are waiting. They want the monster. They want the village and they know Mahlia for what she is. But soon Mahlia is running out of time for the soldier boys take the only thing Mahlia cares about. They take Mouse and make him one of their own.
Now to save her only friend, Mahlia must venture back into the horror of the Drowned Cities to release Mouse. But she needs too convince the monster, Tool, to come with her.
The tenor and feel of this tale is reminiscent to the stories of the Vietnam war and the plight of the villagers as no matter which army came through, they were in danger. The soldier boys, young teenagers taken from their homes and turned into brutal killing machines. It is not only their duty, but their right, to maim and kill and pillage and rape. Mahlia is the result of a collaboration between her mother and the occupying army. When the army left, so did their protection and the reprisal was brutal. Now, marked, not only by her looks but by the maiming, Mahlia must make her way as an outcast in the very land that is her home.
Tool, the killing beast, is perhaps the most humane creature in this entire book. He kills because that is what he does. It is what he is good at. But he does it with a code of honor and respect. A respect that Mahlia must somehow earn.
Mahlia has lost everything. Her mother, her innocence, her hand and now her friend. A friend who once saved her life. Is it loyalty that has her chasing after Mouse? Or is it the final straw? The one last thing she will not give up to the world. Either way, it is her journey back into the Drowned Cities and the horror it holds for her that make this one of the most compelling reads I have enjoyed in quite some time.
This is simply one of those books that should not be missed.