Book Review: The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_the_water_knife

I read the highly-acclaimed The Wind-up Girl several years ago, and loved it, so of course I was very keen to see what Bacigalupi had to say next. The books have government-sanctioned eco-terrorism in common, but this book was just a bit more alarmingly realistic, probably because of its setting – Phoenix, Arizona. As the title suggests, this story is set in a broken world, where aquifers have run dry, and the only water still available is via company-sponsored pipelines from the Colorado River.

The Water Knife of the title is an ex-con named Angel, hired for his unblinking toughness in the face of reason, and brought up through the levels of his organisation for his loyalty to his boss, Catherine Case. The novel begins in Carver City, where Angel and his team drop in on Black Hawk helicopters to sever the water supply via bombing. Angel’s job is to cut – hence the title, Water Knife. The novel ends in the same place it begins.

The story is told from three perspectives. As well as Angel, we hear from the voice of Lucy, a hardnosed reporter, ‘She’s won a Pulitzer, man,’ who came to Phoenix for the stories, and became addicted to the delicate balance between life and death. Her friend Jamie is murdered, and she is determined to figure out which shady syndicate is responsible, and what information they were trying to extract at the time.

Our third voice is Maria, a Texan who lives on the breadline and takes her fortunes wherever she can find them. Texans are reviled in Arizona, seen as freeloaders. She has been convinced by her roommate Sarah, a prostitute, to come with her to the club she visits with her regular john, Michael Ratan. After a night high on ‘bubble’ she wakes in his apartment, which is in an arcology – a self-sustaining environment where water is endlessly recycled. The apartment is ambushed and Ratan and her friend end up shot, as she cowers under the bed. She is found by Angel, who has arrived to investigate why one of Case’s men – Julio – is suddenly running scared, and traced some leads to Ratan a little too late.

The thread that runs through this story seems like a shaggy dog story, and indeed this is how it is viewed by many of the players. It seems as though Ratan has uncovered valuable Indian Water Rights, and his greed sees him end up dead. But at whose hands, and which side is in the right? And how was Jamie mixed up in this? Do these rights even exist, or are they a ploy invented by a desperate man? The denouement of the novel is something straight out of an action movie: hellfire and guns ahoy. As this is set (not terribly far) in the future, there are a few handy technological advances, which see internal organs being replenished through a drip after gunshot wounds.

I read most of this novel in a couple of days, thanks to delayed planes, and it certainly heightened the tension. If you have ever wondered how screwed up the world would be without water, with money- and power-hungry leaders dividing states in Midwest America, read this book. It’s a sobering thought, brought to vivid reality by the able hands of Paolo Bacigalupi. This is a full-tilt eco-terrorism thriller, with plenty of depth and some fascinating characters.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Water Knife
by Paolo Bacigalupi
Published by Orbit, distributed by Hachette NZ
ISBN 9780356502120