book reviews by Althea

The Water Knife – Paolo Bacigalupi *****

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Bacigalupi is On Point with this new thriller. This is the first book I’ve read this year that kept me compulsively turning the pages till way after my bedtime ’cause I absolutely needed to find out what was going to happen.

It’s a near-future sci-fi dystopia – however, I have to say that every time I updated my partner as to ‘what I was reading about,’ he kept saying, “Umm, that’s not science fiction, that’s NOW.”

Well, the situation in the book is a little worse than ‘now’ – but it’s the direction we’re headed. Due to extreme water shortages in the American West, political fighting over water rights has gone to drastic measures, including military-style actions. States’ borders have been closed, to halt the flood of water refugees fleeing a drying landscape. The wealthy 1% live in closed arcologies where everything is recycled and a ‘normal’ lifestyle is maintained – but the vast majority of the population is scraping by, reduced to drinking filtered pee and paying by the liter for water at ‘gas station’-style pumps.

Here we meet Lucy, a woman who’s in a minority in Arizona because she’s there by choice. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist; she’s covering the human side of the situation in the West – but she’s gradually ‘gone native’ – making friends and becoming invested in the community.

We also meet Angel – the title’s ‘water knife.’ A mobster-style enforcer, he works for boss Catherine Case, the woman who ruthlessly controls the state’s water supply.

And then, there’s Maria – a refugee from Texas who needs to scheme just as hard as Catherine Case ever has just to survive. The difference is; she’s working for pennies, not billions.

Lucy’s always got her eye out for a story. Murder’s not uncommon in this world, but now bodies are turning up in conjunction with rumors about some water rights being up for sale – rights which could overturn the existing order and power structure completely. While Lucy tries to find out what’s really going on, others jockey for power and survival around her; desperation making strange bedfellows.

The book’s plot is somewhat standard for the genre, but is excellently paced, creating great tension. My one quibble is that an essential turning point of the plot hangs on one of our characters making a deduction that is really an intuitive leap of faith rather than a logical conclusion… but it’s good enough that I’ll forgive that one quibble. The characters are clearly each picked to illustrate a different segment of society, but are all fully humanized – even the terrifyingly awful ones are all too believable. Overall, the book achieves the perfect balance of dealing insightfully with important and timely social, economic and environmental issues, while still providing a highly entertaining, keep-you-up-till-the-last-page story.

Many, many thanks to Knopf and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this book by one of the most important writers currently publishing in this genre. As always, my opinion is solely my own.

Best quote: “If I could put my finger on the moment we genuinely fucked ourselves, it was the moment we decided that data was something you could use words like ‘believe’ or ‘disbelieve’ around.”


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