Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The Water Knife

Paolo Bacigalupi
Completed 9/13/2022, Reviewed 9/14/2022
4 stars

This thriller was more a general speculative fiction than a full-fledged science fiction.  It’s a near future tale of water rights in an American Southwest of climate change and drought.  I was a little hesitant about this online book club selection because I didn’t care for the author’s Hugo winning The Windup Girl from several years back.  But this one was quite exciting and relatable, after a slow start.  The prose, character development, and world building were all quite good and the ending was a surprise.  I didn’t quite see it coming.  This book was nominated for two 2016 awards, including the Campbell.

Angel is a water knife, a corporate heavy, investigator and some time assassin for a Vegas water lord.  He is sent to Phoenix which is now a dying city as its water is being literally sucked away by California and Nevada.  There he meets Lucy, a dedicated journalist who is trying to find out why a friend of hers was tortured and killed.  Also in Phoenix, we meet Maria, a street tough who is trying to survive the realities of a water scarce inner city.  The three paths cross in various ways when a rich water lawyer is murdered for trying to sell the water rights guaranteed for Phoenix in a 150-year-old treaty between the Arizona government and a Native American nation.  

The plot is initially complicated.  The narrative follows the three main characters in alternating chapters for much of the book.  After a while, their paths begin to crisscross and it becomes clear their destinies are tied together.  Exactly how is part of what makes this book exciting.  

The characters are well crafted.  No one is totally likable.  Angel is downright despicable.  We are introduced to him as he goes into a small city to force the inhabitants out, practically destroying the city to accomplish this.  Lucy the prize-winning journalist is idealistic, living in Phoenix to cover the water situation and the crime and mayhem that results.  While not one of the bad guys, I was not immediately drawn to her.  Likewise with Maria, although she’s relatable.  She’s poor, living day to day trying to make money to survive when every idea she has results in organized crime taking her money as “tax”.  She lives in a world of conflicting values, those of her deceased hopeful father who remembers when times were better and those of her own, developed out of the reality of the day.  While not really likable, all the characters came across very realistically, so that when the climax occurs, it’s completely surprising and believable.  

The prose is really good.  Almost journalistic in style, it reads well, building the excitement as the plot becomes realized.  There are no superfluous passages of descriptions.  Everything written gives you a strong sense of the world and the characters in it without become flowery and boring.  The world building is good, although there were a few words whose meanings I couldn’t figure out in context.  About halfway through, I figured out desal was short for desalinization and not a slang for something else.  Aside from those few things, I really got a sense of the horrible world of Phoenix and the inequities of the rich living in luxurious complexes filled with water basically stolen from the general population.  It probably helped that I lived in Colorado for many years and spent many a vacation in the parched southern Utah.  I love the fierce landscapes of the desert Southwest so it was easy to picture settings in my mind.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  After I realized I had gotten into a thriller, I was able to enjoy the book immensely.  I’m not always a fan of the thriller with its double and triple crosses and noir settings.  But after about the first third, I was pretty hooked.  I was even able to concentrate on finishing the book while waiting to be examined in the Emergency Room for a throbbing torn bicep tendon. (And yes, typing this review with a damaged dominant arm was not easy.)  I’d recommend this book to anyone, with it’s easily accessible plot and not too farfetched dystopian setting.

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