Audiobook Review: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

The Water KnifeThe Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Genre: Science Fiction

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Audible Inc. (May 26, 2015)

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Narrator: Almarie Guerra | Length: 14 hrs

In this day and age where one can’t even walk into a bookstore’s sci-fi section without a few dozen dystopian titles getting thrown in your face, I have to say Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife really impacted me in a big way. It put me in mind of an eccentric high school teacher I once had, who was a little obsessed with doomsday scenarios. He used to be fond of saying that if the civilizations were to crumble or if the whole world were to go to war, it wouldn’t be over things like a pandemic or nuclear war. No, it would be for water – fresh, drinkable water without which none of us can survive.

Indeed, Bacigalupi paints a rather bleak, hellish picture of a place where water is scarce and more valuable than gold, a resource for which people are willing to kill and destroy. Drought has ravaged the American Southwest, changing the physical and political landscape. States like Nevada and Arizona clash viciously over shares of the Colorado River while bigwig California looks on, and states like Texas and New Mexico have long since given up the ghost. Las Vegas employs mercenaries like Angel Velasquez as “Water Knives”, hired to “cut” water for the Southern Nevada Water Authority and its boss, Catherine Case. This ensures continued survival for her lush arcology developments in the hot desert, where the rich luxuriate in cushy comfort while elsewhere cities like Phoenix dry up and stagnate for lack of water.

This book follows Angel as he travels to Phoenix to investigate rumors of a new water source for his boss. The story is told through two other perspectives, including a journalist named Lucy Monroe, as well as a young Texan refugee named Maria Villarosa. Desperate and destitute folk like Maria are struggling to make a living in the city while dreaming of one day having enough money to escape north. Lucy, on the other hand, could have left any time she pleased, but years of living in Phoenix has led her to adopt it as her home, and you get a sense that she’d do what she can to try to help the city. When it appears that California is finally making its move to monopolize the river, Angel, Lucy and Maria end up coming together in a precarious alliance to stop a conspiracy and secure a future for the people of Phoenix.

There are many unsettling themes in this book, and not least of all because the scarcity of potable water is a reality for many people in the world. Talk of droughts in California and in the American Southwest in the news today makes The Water Knife seem less like science fiction and more like a commentary on current issues. If seeing pictures of the immaculate green lawns and freshly filled-pools of the rich and famous during a drought make your blood boil, then this book will take that fury to a whole new level. It’s really hard to read about this divided America where characters like Maria were driven out of Texas after their water got shut off, only to be treated like interlopers when they have no choice but to migrate to Arizona. Girls like Maria’s friend Sarah turn to prostitution as a last resort, servicing those wealthy corporate types for whom a single shower may use up more water than a poor person in Phoenix might see in an entire week. Then to rub salt in the wound, the girls’ money gets taken away by the local gangsters, never allowing anyone a fair shot to work themselves out of this nightmarish situation. There’s a lot in this book that’s hard to take.

It’s also heavy on graphic violence, descriptions of torture both during and after the act, and generally features many scenes of groups of people doing terrible, unspeakable things to other groups of people. If you are squeamish about such things, you should probably go in prepared to read some pretty sick stuff. To the book’s credit, while there’s certainly no shortage of examples in here when it comes humanity’s lowest moments, there are nonetheless many instances of characters stepping up to show an extraordinary amount of bravery and compassion. Despite being categorized as a sci-fi thriller, The Water Knife is also a very human story, where characters are intimately touched by plot events as well as the lives of other people.

The book isn’t exactly a light read, even in the audiobook format I listened to, with its heavy themes and also some parts which are quite drawn out with descriptions. But for all their lengthiness, I think I have these sections to thank for making the world of The Water Knife one of the most detailed and fleshed out dystopians I’ve read. Southwestern America has reverted back to a kind of wildness, a melting pot of disparate rhythms and cultures where Red Cross aid workers, rich Chinese businessmen, underworld crooks, poverty-stricken refugees, sensationalist media journalists, religious evangelists, and dangerous mercenaries all commingled together in a dying city. This also makes the audiobook of The Water Knife worth experiencing, as narrator Almarie Guerra delivers a performance filled with a great variety of accents and voices, and it’s one of the best I’ve ever heard.

This is the first book by Paolo Bacigalupi I’ve ever read, but if this is the kind of originality and well-rounded quality I can expect from his writing, it certainly won’t be the last. I really enjoyed The Water Knife, and I look forward to checking out the author’s previous work as well as his future books.


16 Comments on “Audiobook Review: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi”

  1. Not that I needed much convincing since this was my highly anticipated WoW picks, but seeing so many people give it great reviews makes me feel vindicated and excited to read it soon!


    • I was like that for a long time, even though his name was high on my list of authors to check out – glad I finally took the plunge with this one.


  2. Pingback: Audiobook News & Reviews: 06/09 | ListenUp Audiobooks

  3. Wow. I haven’t read anything by this author and I’ve seen this book here and there but genuinely hadn’t picked up what it was about so this review was most interesting and I will definitely add this to the list.
    I can’t help wondering if actually listening to an audio book with such graphic scenes makes it even more difficult? Interested in your opinion on that because I’ve never listened to an audio book so wouldn’t know. The thing is with violence, torture and the like – it has to be in keeping with the author’s vision. I don’t want those elements there just for shock value but because they’re a part of that world and that sounds like the case here.
    It’s difficult to believe, where I come from, that we could ever have a shortage of water coming from a planet so immersed in it – particularly where I come from we have no shortage of rain and in fact I sometimes think we’re suffering from global wetting (or cooling)!
    Great review.
    Lynn 😀


    • In some ways, yes, it’s harder – because what you read and what you hear sometimes can evoke very different responses, or imagery. If the narrator is good, the delivery of the reading can also be very impactful. In general, it’s also more difficult because I can “skip” passages I know might be disturbing or upsetting when I’m reading, but when you’re listening to an audio, you’re listening to every single word. In any case, yes, I did feel the violence and brutality was in keeping with the world. It’s a very different American Southwest in this book, almost lawless where the poor and marginalized people are concerned.


  4. You mention torture, but is there rape? I loved Wind Up Girl, but did not appreciate the unnecessarily graphic rape scene. He has no business doing more of that.


    • Not that I recall – however, the most disturbing scene to me was a medical examiner’s report of a man who had been tortured and killed, and the physical and sexual abuse he suffered during torture was described very graphically, even though we never technically “see” the scene.


  5. I heard that in his pervious novel, The Windup Girl, he had some heavy graphic scenes in there too. As long as there is a purpose to describing violence scenes in graphic detail I don’t mind. It’s when authors do it just to try and disturb a reader that I don’t.
    But this one sounds good. I’d been expecting a story that would deliver heavy message, and it seems like Paolo did a good job at that.


  6. It’s definitely a book whose timing is a little scary. Since I live in California, and I’m going through heavy water cutbacks, I’m amazed by all my neighbors around me who still water their grass every day! In our city we are only supposed to water twice a week, but clearly it’s not being enforced. I guess I went off on a tangent! I am looking forward to this book, and I haven’t read any Bacigalupi either. Thanks for reviewing it!


  7. Let me be clear here. I do not mind dystopias of this nature. I enjoy a resources are scarce and the author really looks at what could happen type of dystopia. It is the ones that think they are clever or political but really are just group people into dumb cliches that piss me off.

    I would like to read this, my problems with The Windup Girl were quite specific and apparently didn’t show in this book.


  8. Pingback: Backlist Burndown: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi | The BiblioSanctum

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