Paolo Bacigalupi

Little Brown

ISBN: 9780316056212

Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce

I was looking forward to seeing what Bacigalupi would do with YA, having quite enjoyed his first book (The Windup Girl). I’m sad, then, to say that I was disappointed.

It begins well: Nailer, a boy of indeterminate age, clambering through the wreck of a ship and scrabbling for copper to salvage and make the quota required by his work crew. It’s dangerous, unpleasant work, and that is carried very effectively indeed in the opening pages. In fact, the opening is the most effective – and affective – section of the whole novel: it conveys the reality of life for Nailer and others like him in stark simplicity, complete with dangerous working conditions and the possibility of betrayal. I certainly felt for Nailer in his circumstances, and this sympathy was probably the only thing that kept me reading to the end.

Living on a beach with a crowd of similarly destitute and desperate types, Nailer’s life is of course no picnic. It’s made worse when a massive storm comes in and threatens the entire beach, but starts to look up when the storm proves to have driven a modern, very expensive, clipper ship onto the rocks nearby. Naturally, there are complications, and events proceed neither as he expected nor, entirely, as he hoped. There is fighting, betrayal, hope, and agonising decisions as the story plays out. Through all of this, Nailer is exposed to both the better and worse sides of humanity (and the not-quite-human). It’s not quite a coming-of-age story, although given this is (I think) the beginning of a trilogy, perhaps it will evolve as such. It is a discovery-of-the-world story, and Nailer’s eyes – until this point restricted to an unpleasant family and a little-hope life of scavenging and starvation – are the perfect vehicle for Bacigalupi’s exploration of a dystopia where oil is scarce, oceans have risen, and the divide between rich and poor is even more obvious, in the USA, than it is (believed to be) today.

The world created is a compelling one, as dystopias like this, set not-that-far-away, in a world both familiar and unrecognisable thanks to the changes wrought by climate change (readers of The Wind Up Girl will know this is something Bacigalupi is fascinated by), can be. How the world might manage still to transport goods over the globe when there is next to no oil left is one of the big questions addressed here, as is how society would cope with the changes forced on it – and his answer (“not very well, for the poor”) is all too realistic. Unfortunately, the world-building was also one of the aspects I had a problem with. Too often I felt that new aspects of the world were thrust onto the reader with little forewarning, leaving me disoriented. It may not have been so bad had Nailer, our eyes, been equally jarred. Much of the time, though, he appeared to be comfortable with these ‘new’ parts of his world, as though it was what he had expected all along. This discontinuity was disconcerting.

The other issue I had was with the characters. Nailer’s development is fairly consistent with what we learn of him early on, and there is some lovely characterisation and discussion of his decision-making which genuinely felt real. Many of the other characters, however, are too far in the shade – they get too little light cast on their motivations, leaving them at best two-dimensional and Nailer having to carry the entire story himself … which he’s not quite up to. Nailer’s work crew, for example – a hodgepodge of ethnicities, religions and outlooks on life – are described well early on and then become largely irrelevant. The one exception is Pima, the boss girl. Yet even here, with Pima getting into the action much more than the other crew, the reader learns next to nothing about her thoughts or views on life. The same goes for a few of the other characters (explaining who they are would be a terrible spoiler, though, so I won’t go into details). This lack of depth in the characters was another of the disappointments.

My disappointment overall probably stems from the book having been over-hyped, and my own expectations of Bacigalupi. It is a well-realised world, and one that I am pleased to see being examined in a YA context – the possible results of oil scarcity and changes to the weather are definitely worth exploring. The plot is interesting enough, and there’s certainly a lot of action; there is some variety in the characters and their situations, which breaks at least some of the monotony stemming from being Nailer-focussed. But I don’t think I will be hanging out for the sequel.