September 1, 2015

Review: The Water Knife

The Water Knife The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was originally going to give this book four stars. I enjoyed it immensely, but I didn't think it was quite up to the lofty standards of Naomi Novik's Uprooted. Still, I kept thinking about the story, and the characters, and Paolo Bacigalupi's chillingly possible near-future world, and I realized if the book has stayed with me that much, it deserves the final star.

So, five stars it is.

This book hits home for me because I live in Arizona, and it is set (mostly) in Phoenix. But it's the Phoenix, and the America, of twenty or thirty years from now, when climate change is really kicking in. Among other things, there are seawalls around Manhattan and Miami; EF6 tornadoes ravaging Chicago (currently the range tops out at EF5, with windspeeds measured between 261-318 mph; EF6, currently rated "inconceivable,"would go beyond that); and hurricanes slamming the Gulf Coast to the point where thousands of people are fleeing Texas, only with the recently passed State Sovereignty Act, states such as California, New Mexico and Nevada are not allowing them in. Water is more valuable than oil or gold, and the so-called Queen of the Colorado, Catherine Case, is employing "water knives" (actually shadowy beyond-the-law assassins) to defend Nevada's water rights. In Phoenix, massive dust storms, far worse than anything we experience today, are slowly burying the city, which is now stuffed with Texas refugees (called "Merry Perrys"--methinks the author doesn't much care for the former Texas governor) and various other factions fighting each other over water. The world is complicated and fascinating, and scary as hell to me, because I can see all of it coming true. (As an example, the day after I finished this book, there was a front-page article in the Arizona Republic detailing the fight over the Colorado River water and the future of the Southwest amidst the ongoing drought.)

You could call this book "climatepunk," I suppose, but at its heart it's a near-future SF thriller. What sets it apart from most potboiler thrillers, however, is its characters. There are three viewpoint characters--Angel Velasquez the water knife, Lucy Monroe the Phoenix journalist, and Maria Villarosa, the Texas refugee who unwittingly gets dragged into the whole mess and plays a surprising role in the end--and these characters are very well done. Each has believable backgrounds, well-thought-out motivations, and a distinct arc, stretched over alternating chapters that fit together like a series of interlocking puzzles. The pacing is excellent and the stakes are high. The ending is a bit abrupt, at least to me, and while it does leave things open for a sequel (something along the lines of "Do they make it to Las Vegas with those senior-to-God water rights, or does California capture them instead?"), the current storyline is for the most part wrapped up.

This book will make you think, and it should. I don't think the author really wants to be known as a prophet, but if the US doesn't get its collective head out of its ass regarding climate change, I think he's going to be more on target than anyone wishes.

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