Review: Bacigalupi back with another dark vision

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"The Drowned Cities," (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), by Paolo Bacigalupi: A new Paolo Bacigalupi novel is reason to celebrate — no matter how old you are.

Bacigalupi's latest, "The Drowned Cities," is his second straight young adult release, but that shouldn't deter the writer's older fans from picking up the book (even if you have to do it on the sly).

It's packed with the same kind of entrancing insight that made Bacigalupi's previous work — "Ship Breaker" for young readers and the novel "The Windup Girl" and the short story collection "Pump Six and Other Stories" for adults — so unforgettable.

His characters and plots play out a few centuries in the future, but they're so grounded in the now, they often make the reader stop and ponder the intricate game of connect the dots he plays to render such a convincing — if gloomy — outcome for humanity, and especially its children.

There are few adults in "The Drowned Cities," the result of years of fractious infighting in a lawless section of the eastern U.S. around Washington, D.C. A multisided civil war waged by child soldiers has raged since the oceans rose, flooding some of the country's most populous areas, and the world returned to The Dark Ages after the failure of our Accelerated Age.

At one time there were Chinese peacekeepers to help restore order, but they sailed away on their clipper ships, leaving the country to fall into chaos and young Mahlia to fend for herself. A "castoff," she was left behind by her father and loses her mother to one of the many factions vying for control. The color of her skin and cast of her eyes mark her as a pariah in a vengeful society.

Mahlia is saved by a young boy named Mouse after her right arm is chopped off by a child soldier who intends to leave her limbless, and they eventually find a home with kindly Dr. Mahfouz in a relatively safe region. She learns to aid the doctor and is carving out a future in a time when life expectancy barely creeps into the double-digits.

Everything changes with the appearance of genetic experiment Tool, the part-man, part-dog, part-tiger, part-hyena supersoldier who appeared in "Ship Breaker." He's on the run from faction leader Col. Glenn Stern's United Patriot Front, and Mahlia's decision to help him — despite the clear danger he presents to everyone — drives the rest of the novel.

The plot's pretty simple, set on overdrive and laid out for easy conversion to screenplay. But we're not here for the plot, are we? It's Bacigalupi's ripped-from-the-real characters and his cleareyed visions of the future that draw the mind.

Bacigalupi uses powerful images and symbols in "The Drowned Cities." Life still goes on in the never-ending, kudzu-covered cityscape that hangs on above the second-story waterline and in the streets turned canals. Boy soldiers from the UPF with their hashtag facial brands, Army of God, Freedom Militia and the countless factions terrorize everyone.

Slaves move barges and power salvage operations by overseas corporations that fund the constant violence. The Capitol Dome is pounded into oblivion under heavy artillery in yet another pointless battle. Old American flags, statuary raided from monuments and other pieces of precious U.S. history are sold as "antiques" to blood buyers who move them to the new power center in Asia where they are treasured relics.

Sounds outlandish? Not in Bacigalupi's hands.

"The Drowned Cities hadn't always been broken," Bacigalupi writes. "People broke it. First they called people traitors and said they didn't belong. Said these people were good and those people were evil, and kept it going, because people always responded, and pretty soon the place was a roaring hell because no one took responsibility for what they did, and how it would drive others to respond."

Sure, it's a made-up story for kids. But the powerful thing about Bacigalupi's work — for them or anyone else willing to spend the time — is it feels so real.


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