It took me a while to get into this book by Paolo Bacigalupi. The story follows three separate characters, each one dealing with a different aspect of the calamitous water shortages in the southwestern U.S. Angel is a “water knife,” employed by the head of the Nevada Water Authority. His job is to make sure that her water rights are protected so that Las Vegas can survive. Lucy is a Phoenix journalist, charting the violence and destruction as water shortages tear the city apart. Maria is a refugee from Texas, barely eking out a living in Arizona and hoping to find a way north.
The world of this novel is brutal, and it brings home just how essential water is to survival and what people might resort to if it were to become truly scarce. The scenarios Bacigalupi imagines feel plausible, as he builds on current trends around corporate ruthlessness and disdain for refugees. And it is hard to read. There are scenes involving torture that almost caused me to put the book aside. Torture is something I find especially difficult to read about or watch, and, although Bacigalupi doesn’t depict every moment, it’s graphic enough to be unsettling.
But my main struggle with the book was with my difficulty getting a handle on how the world of the novel works and with getting a sense of the main characters. Although I think it was valuable to show different aspect of life in this world, it made it more difficult to settle into the story and the characters.
However, once the three characters’ stories start to come together, around halfway into the book, the story picks up steam and became hard to put down. At this point, many of the side characters who surrounded the main characters fall away, and the three main figures become the focus. I started to have reason to care about their fates and to worry about how everything might work out. The suspense builds and loyalties shift right up until the book’s final moments, with a ending that is troubling yet satisfying all at once.