4 out of 5 stars
I received an ARC.
This one was more disturbing than I initially thought it would be. I read Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker duo and since that was fairly speculative I thought this one would follow suit. It was shockingly realistic though. From what I know of the Colorado River, it, and the states it supplies, are going to be in trouble in the near future. That, combined with the lack of futuristic technology in the book, make it seem very close to reality. This book is ultimately about water, and a future in which it has become dangerously scarce.
Set in the near future, three different characters try to navigate a water-starved Southwestern United States. The survival of different cities depends on their political clout and ability to claim senior water rights. Las Vegas is one of the big players, with Catherine Case and her goons destroying nearby competitors by undermining their water supply. Angel is one of those goons, and when someone in the area starts claiming they have traced down a game changing water allocation document, Case send him to investigate. Lucy is a future Pulitzer prize winning journalist who is willing to risk her life to uncover the shady dealings and murders behind the ongoing legal battle for control of the Colorado. It is her friend who initially claimed possession of what might be the most valuable document in America, but when he is found murdered, she has the story of a lifetime in her hands. Maria is a refugee from the now ruined state of Texas who lives hand to mouth, trying to stay out of the way of local gangs and save up enough to escape to one of the more hydrated states.
I thought this book was going to read like a dystopian novel, but it actually had a lot of characteristics of a legal thriller. A lot of the action is around legal battles for water rights, since the United States has not quite dissolved and any state caught attacking another for water will face retaliation from the federal government. There are hidden dealings, gangs and murders, but it is not outright like it would be in a dystopia. The cities have to at least appear to be handling things legally and above board. The world is dystopian, but the plot is the type of action I would more expect to find in a John Grisham novel.
Maria’s viewpoint was probably the one I enjoyed reading about the most. Angel and Lucy both live fairly privileged lives within the world of the novel. Angel is employed by one of the most powerful women in America and Lucy has enough money to buy herself water. Lucy is also not native to the area, so she has the ability to relocate elsewhere (state borders were quickly shut down once the drought hit. Too many people were flooding into the states that had steady water supplies). It is from Maria that we get a good sense of what a prolonged drought and interstate tensions would do to the most vulnerable parts of the population and how it would potentially affect politics and companies. In Maria’s world, refugees from stricken states like Texas are taken care of by large companies like Dasani and Camelpack, who provide emergency water and other supplies to citizens who have no place else to go. Criminals can be bribed to sneak people across state borders, but since they are heavily policed by troops and local militias, that is a very dangerous option. Tensions against refugees even from other cities whose water has run dry makes moving around tricky, but when the water is turned off, people don’t have much of a choice. Local gangs prey on the desperate and those who cannot afford to live in technology rich, Chinese built condos often have to go to great lengths to buy the barest necessities. Maria’s best friend is a prostitute and Maria herself sells water to Chinese workers on their lunch breaks, all the while paying protection money to several dangerous men.
The plot is full of twists and turns as Angel and Lucy both try and find the truth behind the elusive document and the trail of bodies it seems to be leaving behind it. There are several torture scenes I found a bit intense, so while others on Goodreads have characterized this as a YA novel, I would probably recommend it more for adults. It would be a good thought-provoking read for older teens if they could stomach the violence, but I found it a bit of a hard read in places.
Bacigalupi built an insanely convincing world very close to our own. The most futuristic technologies are ones that are able to recycle water more effectively, and some medicines that are a bit more advanced. Nothing that could not reasonably come into being in the next 50 years or so though. Fighting is done with guns and cell phones and computers still look much the way they do now. That is what makes this book so scary. It is only a small step away from the present. Control of waterways is only going to become more important as the population continues to grow and average global temperatures rise. It is completely conceivable that battles over water rights in already drought stricken states will become more tense and water prices become more interesting than oil. It would be a great book for a book club that wants to tie speculative fiction closely in with world events.
This book was a quick read since I had trouble putting it down. Having a variety of characters occupying different layers of the social strata gives the reader a rounded view of the world the author has created, and fast paced action keeps you reading. This was definitely an attention-grabbing book by an author quickly making a big name for himself.