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The Water Knife by Paulo Bacigalupi – Review

The Water Knife by Paulo Bacigalupi – Review
Photo by Eileen Wong on Unsplash

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi is a page-turning cli-fi thriller, set in the not-to-distant future. It originally started life as a short story, published as The Tamarisk Hunter.

Although based in the future, reading this cli-fi novel in the summer of 2022 almost feels like a portent of what could be around the corner. Large parts of Europe, Asia and America have been subjected to intense heatwaves, drought and wildfires, as a result of climate breakdown. This book then feels very relevant, and shows how cli-fi can help us imagine, and hopefully avoid, such a dire future.

Who are the main characters in The Water Knife?

The story follows three main characters who come from very different backgrounds, yet their worlds collide in Phoenix, Arizona, as ‘Big Daddy Drought’ takes hold.

Lucy Monroe is a Pulitzer-winning journalist who is documenting the collapse of the city during the drought. She often collaborates with a photographer, Timo, who can always be found where there are dead bodies. And in this book, there are no shortage of them. Lucy has family up in Canada, including her sister Anna, who begs Lucy to leave Arizona, as it’s simply too dangerous to be there anymore. As a journalist from a different state, she is one of the lucky few who could escape if she wanted too. Whereas many of the refugees come from places like Texas, and they are prevented from crossing state borders.

Maria Villarosa is a refugee from Texas. Her family has passed away, and apart from a few friends she is alone in a very dangerous place. She is smart and is able to capitalise on a very temporary drop in the price of water and hopes to sell it for a large profit. But a criminal gang who controls the territory, led by a sinister leader called ‘the Vet’, has other ideas. She is a member of the LGBTQ community. She faces loss upon betrayal, upon unrelenting hardship. However, without realising it, she could hold they key to legally resolving much of the interstate fighting.

Angel Velasquez is a ‘water knife’, who enforces the wills and wants of the ‘Queen of the Colorado’, Catherine Case. He is a nuanced character with a painful past, and one can never be too sure about what he will do next. However, he is loyal to his boss. But the same can’t be said of her.

What is The Water Knife about?

The Water Knife is a cli-fi novel about a severe and sustained drought in the American south-west. It is centred in the city of Phoenix, where water is rationed and hard to come by. Refugees from Texas are here in droves, and they are looked down upon by the locals. Conflict is always on the horizon in these situations as the fight for life’s most basic resource intensifies.

Dust storms are common in this world. The heat is intense and never abates. People dream of rain. People pray for rain. But it never comes. Things like ‘clearsacs’ are commonplace, which recycle urine into drinking water. People want to flee north, where there is a hope of water and some kind of normal life. They pay smugglers called ‘coyotes’ to get them across the desert and across the border. But these smugglers aren’t always who you think they are. Criminal gangs take advantage of the situation and dominate neighbourhoods and areas.

People like Catherine Case, are the winners of this world. With her own private militia she seeks to protect her water territory and stamp out anyone who interferes. Angel is one of these enforcers and he gets sent to Phoenix, whereby he hears about ancient documents detailing old water rights, known as ‘God rights’ because they supersede all others. It’s these he seeks to find, and that bring him into contact with Lucy and Maria.

The trail of dead bodies and violence, speaks to the lengths people will go to for these all-important legal rights.

Concluding Comments

If an analysis of the dust-bowl conditions in The Water Knife was carried out, and compared to what conditions are already like, it might not feel a million miles away. We may not have descended into the social chaos depicted in the novel, but the drought conditions will seem eerily familiar to many right now.

In summary, The Water Knife is a great example of how cli-fi can be gripping, without being dystopian in nature – something that many other books in this genre fall into. My other top cli-fi reading recommendation is The Last Bear by Hannah Gold, which is one of my all-time favourite books.

My new cli-fi children’s picture book is Nanook and the Melting Arctic. Nanook is a caring polar bear who lives in the Arctic. But when his igloo starts melting, Nanook must find a way to save his friends and his home. He knows that the people who can help are also those who’ve caused the problem and he must find a way to convince leaders to act on the climate crisis. You can purchase Nanook from Amazon’s global stores including Amazon UK and Amazon US.

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