The Water Knife

September 14, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

knifeThe Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi


I haven’t yet read The Windup Girl. I have it, and plan to read it, but I try to stick to randomly selecting the next book I read, so when this one came up before the other, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to read it first. If he were as good a writer as I had heard, it shouldn’t make a difference, right?


I have mixed feelings about this book. It has its good moments — he writes action and dialogue well, at least when he’s not having characters give a speech to explain his dystopia more clearly to us — but it also has some issues that don’t sit well with me. Bacigalupi does a fine job creating this near future where climate change has made water scarce in the southwest, and where Nevada, Arizona, and Texas have broken down into nation states trying to protect their own resources. When a heavy working for the mayor of Las Vegas gets wind of a new water resource in Phoenix, shortly after cutting another city off of its water supply in order to keep Las Vegas with enough of its own, the story begins in earnest.

The biggest problem I had with the story was in its characters. Bacigalupi’s female characters aren’t treated well, and two of his main characters in The Water Knife are women. One is a reporter, living well enough to keep herself comfortable, but the other is a living in the poorest region of the state, relying on everything but prostitution to get by. Her region is controlled by a crime boss who wants a cut of everything sold there, meaning that she will never earn enough to escape that kind of life. Bacigalupi shows us everything she has to endure just to survive, and after a while it feels like misery pornography. The reporter, on the other hand, works closely to that field herself (this future is full of tabloids with graphic photos of lurid deaths), so maybe the author is trying to make a point with it. Lucy, the reporter, isn’t quite on that level, but near the end of the novel, as things begin to fall apart, she becomes a part of it herself.

Angel, the heavy, is our bad guy, though he of course is conflicted enough to keep us rooting for his survival. What makes him conflicted isn’t the fact that Phoenix has its own problems and deserves its own water, though; what conflicts him is that he falls for Lucy. And Lucy more or less falls for him, even after she learns what he is, what he’s done, and after being subjected to torture by a colleague of his. I didn’t find either character acting like they had been intended to portray, and their interest in each other served only as a way to draw all three of the characters together for the final moments of the book. Plus, with the number of betrayals and backstabbings that took place along the way, I don’t understand how any of them trusted each other enough to get as far as they did.

The ending came suddenly, as if Bacigalupi ran out of steam once everyone’s stories intersected, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. That’s not a complaint, mind you; stories with ambiguous endings that keep me thinking intrigue me more than those that wrap up everything neatly. But that it happened so quickly was bothersome, mostly because the character who was featured the least in the entire book became the pivot for the entire plot. I understand the motivation there, but it doesn’t feel complete the way the author ends it. Ambiguous is fine; incomplete is not.

It also wasn’t a very hopeful story, which I didn’t expect. The plot develops in such a way as to expect something good to come of all the terrible things that happen to the characters, but things didn’t end the way I expected. Again, this isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it seems to be at odds with how the story was developing. It reminds me a little of Michael Marshall Smith, with his nihilistic outlook on the world, but the plot didn’t lead me to expect it.

The book is enjoyable, I like Bacigalupi’s style, and I even found myself racing to reach the end of the story as everything came to a head. The tension became palpable, and I found myself rooting for the main characters even as I couldn’t resolve parts of their motivation. It just wasn’t all I expected it to be. I’m still eager to read The Windup Girl to see what the author did that won him multiple awards, but The Water Knife just feels like a trunk novel, which doesn’t make any sense since The Windup Girl wasn’t even his first novel. Like I said at the beginning: I have mixed feelings about this book.

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