“In the near future, the Colorado River has dwindled to a trickle. Detective, assassin, and spy, Angel Velasquez “cuts” water for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, ensuring that its lush arcology developments can bloom in Las Vegas. When rumors of a game-changing water source surface in Phoenix, Angel is sent south, hunting for answers that seem to evaporate as the heat index soars and the landscape becomes more and more oppressive.
There, he encounters Lucy Monroe, a hardened journalist with her own agenda, and Maria Villarosa, a young Texas migrant, who dreams of escaping north. As bodies begin to pile up, the three find themselves pawns in a game far bigger and more corrupt than they could have imagined, and when water is more valuable than gold, alliances shift like sand, and the only truth in the desert is that someone will have to bleed if anyone hopes to drink.” Source: Knopf Doubleday Publishing.
The Water Knife starts out SO BRILLIANTLY as a detailed and complex story about local water politics. I am a bit obsessed with politics, and I compulsively follow the most local of stories (well, I’m in DC so local politics here is always fascinating, intersecting as it often does with national politics, and frequently mired in corruption scandals). *Swoon* Definitely a “Love at First Page” kind of book for me!
The Water Knife may be particularly enjoyable for those who like to stay up to date on news from their city council, who don’t skip the articles in their local paper on topics like building codes and telecom monopolies.
But, even if you’re not into that kind of thing, no worries! The Water Knife is one of the most original dystopic sci-fi books I’ve read in a very long time. Set in the South/Western states – Texas, Nevada, Cali, Arizona, Colorado, it describes the devastating landscape created by a world without water – sustainable ‘biomes’ that house the fortunate, complete with waterfalls and gardens on one hand, the ‘outside’, the desert, for everyone else. In this world, survival is the ultimate goal, poker-chip, and bribe; water is gold, and ‘water knives’ and their networks act as ruthless mafioso gatekeepers; many people live in makeshift camps surrounding fountains and peddle their very bodies to be able to buy a few drops, while foreigners lead the biomes.
Not only is (most) of The Water Knife a complex, well-paced political thriller, but Bacigalupi also writes his characters so insightfully, with such compassion. The story follows three main actors: a Pulitzer-winning journalist, an ex-con who does the dirty work of a ruthless politician, and a poor young Mexican immigrant who sells her body to pay rent to her slum-lord. All such vastly divergent characters, and yet we are brought into their lives so completely, we can identify with them fully, and understand their decisions and actions even when we may not see ourselves (re)acting in similar ways.
The world itself is believable and consistent – but I did not find how we get there to be terribly well articulated. For example, Bacigalupi does a wonderful job depicting how people act in extreme shortage situations. BUT, I simply did not see enough evidence to believe it a plausible situation that Nevadans would shoot Texan refugees on sight if they were caught crossing the border… (Warning: there’s quite a bit of Texas trashing in this book, and Cali is like the James Moriarty of this world). I mean, maybe this would happen if we really ran out of water, but I didn’t feel the point well-developed enough to convince me.
The first 2/3 of The Water Knife was SO good, so much so that I was going to enthusiastically rate this at 5/5…. but then I read the last 1/3. Which I could barely believe was written by the same author.
For the last third or so of this book, the subtlety of the water politics so brilliantly detailed previously gives way to obscene violence, action, and sex. Ugh. It’s like, all of a sudden and out of nowhere, the book turns into a James Bond extravaganza, and complexity gives way to inanity and crudity. And what makes this all the worst is that the shift towards an “action packed thriller” was just not necessary for the development of the plot and for bringing about a satisfying resolution. So why, why, why did Baciagalupi have to cheapen The Water Knife so? 😦
Overall, though, I am still giving The Water Knife 4 hearts because the first part was just THAT good, and I would still highly recommend it – especially to those passionate about politics, social justice, the environmental crisis, or to those who love intelligent, complex dystopic fiction.