I like sci-fi novels, but they aren’t my favorite thing so the standards for me even reading them are pretty high. It takes both a good cover and a great premise for me to pick one up. Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi had both. I have a weird obsession with old ships. It’s part of why I saw Titanic eight times in theaters (the other part being that I was in eighth grade, so no judging please), it’s part of why I’m obsessed with WWII museums, and it’s part of why I love living in a port city. So the cover and title of Ship Breaker tugged me in. And the blurb kept my attention because I live on the gulf coast and the only books that are ever set here are the ghost stories people set in New Orleans.
Ship Breaker takes place sometime in the future, but we don’t really know when. We also don’t really know what happened to get people to that point except that the coasts of cities are wrecked, huge portions of the population live in abject property, the old Gulf cities have been abandoned, and massive clipper ships with huge sails are the primary and most luxurious method of transportation around. Nailer Lopez has only seen these ships in pictures. He’s one of the poverty stricken masses, working on the ravaged coastline to scavenge pieces of old oil tankers run aground, crawling deep into their bellies to try to meet the quota his crew needs of things like copper wire. His only chance out seems to be finding a “lucky strike,” some scavenge he can use to get rich quick. Until, that is, a huge hurricane ship wrecks one of the wealthiest girls on the planet on his shores.
I always start my reviews talking about characters because characters are what tie me to the books I read. It is a testament to the brilliance of this book that the characters are what I go to first here, as well. I loved Nailer. Too often, characters are black or white, good or bad. Nailer lived firmly in the gray areas, where all of us real people live. He wasn’t always completely altruistic, but even if he considered the less savory option, he usually did the right thing. And Paolo Bacigalupi does an excellent job of showing us, not telling us the kind of person Nailer is. He comes from a rough background and we see the way that changes the way he sees things rather than being told every page that look, he had a rough life, cut him some slack. We know he did and it’s obvious that his history determines how he sees things. I also felt like he went on a good journey in this book – not that he had some aha moment about how the world really works, but that he learned things about himself that the reader knew were there all along.
I also liked Pima and Nita, who in a lot of ways were two sides of the same coin. Both girls, but from two completely different worlds – Pima a ship breaker like Nailer and Nita the richest girl on the planet. Pima was loyal and fair and, like Nailer, she didn’t always want to do the right thing, but she did it anyway. And Nita was more than her swank upbringing, but she wasn’t this perfect compassionate person. She judged and thought she was better than the people who were trying to save her, even if she didn’t want to and even if she worked twice as hard as they expected. It’s Paolo Bacigalupi’s real strength, I think, drawing whole characters who are true to the background and history he gives them.
The details of the world built in Ship Breaker were what put it a cut above so many other books. From the tattoos that brand Pima and Nailer like sheep, like the property of the crew bosses who treat them like slaves to the way the “city” they lived in was described was perfection. I loved the idea of the clipper ships, and I could see how easy it would be for someone like Nailer to romanticize them – I did too. The “Half-men” in the novel gave it a real sci-fi feel without overwhelming things, as did mentions of the “Cult of Life” and the harvesters who bought organs and eyes and any body part that might have a value.
My one complaint is entirely centered on the fact that I live in Louisiana and I’m sensitive to the talk of hurricanes etc., but sometimes the talk of the city killer hurricanes and how people drilling destroyed the wetlands felt a little preachy, a little too political and out of place with the rest of the book. In the end though, I doubt people outside of this region would notice, and I ended up not caring at all because I loved this book so much.
Overall, Ship Breaker was a balanced book. It had a strong plot that kept me turning the pages with characters who were all likable and relatable. And the characters perfectly fit the plot, which is something I find that too often novels don’t do anymore. When I got to the last page, it felt like a complete book, too, but I was hoping for a sequel anyway. And my wish is apparently the universe’s command, because the next installment, The Drowned Cities, is due…sometime in 2011. I’d guess in May, though there’s no release date and how I will wait that long I don’t know (See? There was no cliff hangar and still I’m desperate for more of this world).
Also! I just saw on Twitter as I was preparing to post this review that Paolo Bacigalupi has won a Hugo Award (wow I have excellent taste). Congratulations! So, readers, Kate and critics agree – his books are awesome and you should read them!