BOOK REVIEW: 'The Water Knife' by Paolo Bacigalupi

This book is about water. Imagine the United States fragmented. Texas has fallen away and there’s a fence, much like the one we now put up to block immigrants from Mexico.

Angel is what they call a “Water Knife.” He does the dirty work for the power brokers who are fighting for the water rights to what is left of the Colorado River. Angel was hired by a woman named Catherine Case. She found him in jail under a false name, which, to all intents and purposes, made him a ghost.

Catherine has a group of “Water Knives” that work for her so she can obtain water rights for Las Vegas. Her nickname is “Queen of the Colorado.”

Angel drives all over Phoenix in his Tesla, an all-electric car that actually exists today. Ironically, with gas prices going down, sales of the Tesla are a bit off right now. Americans have short memories, and that’s what Angel counts on. Then there’s Lucy Monroe, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who’s closely following the water wars. Somewhere, someone has the papers to the water rights sold by an Indian tribe in the early 1800s and they’re the only water rights that count.

In shanty towns around the cities in Nevada, people go to buy water at pumps; running water is a thing of the past outside the main cities. In this future, water is more valuable than gold. Angel and Lucy Monroe start a relationship on the fly, and she saves his life as he saves her. The most powerful cartels are the water cartels and the narcotic cartels. When people lose all the things they strive for, there’s nothing left to do but get high and keep a steady water supply.

But as Angel says, “When things are like this, alliances shift like sand. Someone will have to bleed if anyone hopes to drink.”

This is Paolo Bacigalupi’s first totally adult book since The Wind-Up Girl, which is about similar events in Thailand where everything is measured in precious energy units. Night Shade Books put it out in such a small run because they felt it was so complex it would be a no seller.

But suddenly, they sold out of The Wind-Up Girl, and more orders flowed in. Printing after printing was put out, each one selling out. The book was Hugo Nominated, and Paolo Bacigalupi became a Locus Award winning author.

Soon after the powerful success of The Wind-Up Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi put out two young adult books in rapid succession; one was called Ship-Breaker and was a runaway best seller, winning the Michael I. Printz Award and becoming a National Book Award finalist. His next book was called The Drowned Cities, and it, too, literally flew off the shelves, bought by young adults and older people alike.

His next book, The Doubt Factory, was also a young adult novel, but all three books sold to adults just as much. Go to and see my review of The Doubt Factory. Like The Windup Girl, I predict The Water Knives will be another award-winning power seller. It takes place in the separated United States in the near future.

The main characters, their lives linked by blood and water, are: Lucy Monroe, the reporter; Angel, the water knife, who works for Catherine Case; and Maria Villarosa, a young refugee from Texas who is always on the edge of disaster.

Paolo Bacigalupi understands climate change and is accurate in his vision of the water wars, which have arguably already started in the Southwest. He writes about the America that will come to be if we continue to turn a blind eye to the damage caused by extreme consumption.

The city of Phoenix is dying. There are pumps like we see today in gas stations where people line up with containers to collect water. Lucy’s sister, back in New England, warned Lucy to come home, but Lucy Monroe knows the big story about the water rights is just around the corner.

As she walks through a morgue overflowing with the bodies of refugees who fled Texas, Lucy Monroe searches for the key to the big story of who owns the water rights. Angel passes the bodies and flashes his police badge at Lucy while gripping her arm tightly. But when he looks into her eyes, the angel of death grins back at him. Lucy tries to pull away but sees herself in Angel’s eyes as they both look at her friend Jamie Sanderson, who is on a gurney with empty sockets instead of eyes.

Just the other day, Jamie, also a reporter, was talking about the key to the Colorado River Compact. Lucy warned him he was out of his depth. The morgue is full of bodies, mostly victims of thirst; Jamie has no eyes and is also missing other body parts.

Angel questions Lucy in the overflowing morgue. She looks at his badge, then sees the tattoo of the snake running up his arm. This man is death, thinks Lucy.

“I didn’t get your name,” Angel pressed. And Lucy knows.

Outside, everyone is walking quickly through the dust storm, tightening their dust masks with the REI microfilters. It’s time to go.

Angel screams down the road in his Tesla, soaring like a predatory bird. He knows that the woman reporter in the morgue sees the world as he does. Only the water rights bring life.

This book, The Water Knife, will own you. Once you pick it up, you will find it almost impossible to put down. Paolo Bacigalupi has created another masterpiece.

The Water Knife can be pre-ordered at the Harvard Book Store in Harvard Square. That’s where I’m buying mine: keeping the money local, and they’re an independent bookstore.

The Water Knife will be released in Spring, 2015, by Alfred A. Knopf, New York.







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