A solid 3.5. Far from the worst book I’ve ever read, but nothing groundbreaking.
The Water Knife is a three-protagonist speculative fiction novel, following the intersecting lives of Angel, a hired thug who ‘cuts’ water from those who don’t pay up, Lucy, a freelance journalist, and Maria, a refugee. The three converge in the ravaged city of Phoenix, Arizona, some years into a water crisis which has rendered the United States at war with itself over the limited resources.
It’s a very geopolitical novel, and has a lot to say, but personally I felt there wasn’t much being said that hasn’t been said before.
“This dust” – he shrugged – “it’s hard to get relief here, even with the filters over in the Taiyang. Everyone cuts corners. They’d never get away with shoddy work like this in California. No one’s really investing long term. Not even the Chinese. Not long term, anyway. It’s a doomed place, after all.”
The Water Knife reads as something in the same vein as Mad Max: Fury Road, though it’s a little less crazy, a little less exciting, and the characters are a little less compelling.
That being said, I did enjoy it. It is an intelligent novel, and the writing is, for the most part, not half bad (although whether the sex scene falls under the umbrella of quality prose is questionable).
Of the three characters, I found Maria to be the most interesting. Her desperate efforts to stay out of prostitution left me rooting for her, and I found her attitude to the dark world of this novel convincing. With Angel I was less invested, mostly because Bacigalupi really tries to make this man ‘cool’, and therefore renders him a bit of a bore. And with Lucy I didn’t really care whether she lived or died.
In the midst of the conversation, she’d seen the guards ushering someone out. She’d sipped her coffee, watching as it happened. Pitying the person but not really feeling their desperation.
The plot is uncomplicated, though it disguises itself beneath layers of scientific and political jargon. It’s not a bad one, but to be honest the opening shows more promise than the novel actually delivers.
A cursory glance on Goodreads for other reviews suggests that a lot of people see this novel as a kind of voyeuristic depiction of extreme and sexist violence. In places I agree it’s overdone, but although The Water Knife features a spectrum of gristly themes, I’ve read worse.
The things I take the most objection to are the fact that only one of the three protagonists is a protagonist worth following, and the weird smut. As a depiction of the world we are perhaps heading towards, it is pretty harrowing, but it’s not more, or less, harrowing, than many other books out there.
All in all, distinctly average.