Apr 112014

drowned citiesThe Drowned Cities, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Synopsis: Child soldiers in a crumbling American South try to survive.

Book Review: An interesting mix, because this is marketed as “YA”, but the subject matter really pushes the boundaries of that. It’s rare (to say the least) for YA to feature amputation, pre-teens using drugs/alcohol and visiting brothels, and committing war crimes. However the writing style often feels like YA, which is unfortunate.

The book has an extremely strong setting, I loved the over-grown jungles and crumbling cities of a war-torn South. The characters are all vibrant and distinct. They really grab you, and you feel like you would love to meet any of them (not because they’d be pleasant to be around of course, but because they are so interesting). The plot moves along at a good clip, and there are a lot of things in this book that will stay with you for quite a while.

On the other hand, the prose itself is lackluster. It lacks a strong voice, and never gets very intricate. It is also sometimes too un-subtle (and I am not a subtly fetishist). I often hear “Well, it’s YA, you have to make allowances for the book due to the target audience. It won’t be as intricate as an adult novel.” And frankly I think that’s intentionally setting the bar low. It’s the same complaint people have about self-published stuff. With the excuses of “Well, it’s self-published, you gotta let some things slide” it just lowers the level of the entire field because no one strives for excellence. This is one of the reasons I don’t really like to read YA. Drowned Cities could have been an amazing novel. But the excuse of “it’s YA, it doesn’t have to be as polished” let it aim lower.

Also there is too much reliance on Tool to solve every problem, and the ending is somewhat unsatisfying.

However the book is so good in so many other ways it’s really hard to come down hard on it. It is, overall, good. If you like YA (and can handle some atrocities), I’d definitely recommend it. If you’re like me and tend to avoid YA, I’d wish the fates were different but say not to make a special effort to pick it up.

Book Club Review: We had a massive turn out for this meeting. Everyone had things they wanted to say. Things they loved that they wanted to enthuse about with others, and things that rubbed them the wrong way that they really had to get out of their system. I mentioned in my introductory postthat generally the best books for book clubs are ones that have great highlights and also substantial flaws, so there’s things to talk about other than just repeating “Yeah, that was great.” This is one of those books.

It also, like all of Paolo’s writings, has a lot to say. Political/moral/social things, which people can agree or disagree with at length. It was pointed out by another member that this book takes the position that there is no such thing as a just war, or as virtuous violence. If fighting erupts in an area they only sensible thing to do is walk away, leave the animals to wipe each other out, then maybe come back later to pick up the pieces. Violence only ever feeds more violence. Intervention, even for good reasons, will only make things worse. I don’t know if this is the author’s personal position, but it was well presented in the story and made for some interesting comments.

The discussion was insightful and fun, and no one disliked the book. Definitely a solid win. Recommended.

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