This was a decently entertaining read, but there were enough thematic and structural issues to also make it a distracting and confusing one. Something about the story felt amateurish and incomplete, and the ending itself was abrupt and seemed not completely thought out. It was not terrible, it simply felt like an idea that never got fully developed, thus the book never felt “solid” or came into its own.
It could be said that this is a “mid-apocalyptic” book (if such a thing exists—it does now, I guess) in that the story takes place not before or after a great calamity, but in the middle of the world falling apart, and the reason is much simpler than zombies or a viral outbreak: it’s water.
The premise is initially intriguing, if odd. The extent of the novel’s world takes a few chapters to get your head around if you come into the book cold, as I did. It takes place in a near future version of America where it no longer rains and the drier states such as Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas have become dangerous and desolate territories where water is scarce and what little is available is controlled by corrupt powers with their own self interests in mind. California, on the other hand, has become more or less its own country with plentiful water and resources. It is viewed as a sort of paradise that the rest of the US aspires to, however their borders are strictly monitored and getting inside the state is nearly impossible without a great deal of money or social stature.
Much of the book takes place in Phoenix, a city that has been largely abandoned and left to die by the rest of the country. Gangs and savages have sprung up who preside over the weak and helpless. They run prostitution rings, take cuts of cash and water from small business owners within their territory, and watch over the borders so that inhabitants cannot simply leave the state. It’s a dire situation.
The plot centers around three characters in vastly different situations whose stories eventually intertwine: Lucy, a journalist who covers primarily grisly murders often related to water rights conflicts; Angel, a highly trained hitman/undercover investigator/Jason Bourne type (the slang term for his occupation being water knife) who works for a powerful figure named Catherine Case based in Las Vegas who controls most of the water in the Southwestern states; and Maria, an impoverished young woman who makes her living by buying up water at low rates and reselling it in convenient locations for a profit.
I did come to care about all three of these characters, Lucy in particular, and Bacigalupi’s ability to write dialogue and small human moments was notable. The book plays out as sort of a medium-speed thriller (I would consider something by Lee Child or Michael Crichton to be “full-speed,” comparatively) mixed with more intimate moments between the main characters in their struggle to survive.
One of my issues with the book is its smallness of scope. If there is literally no more rain anywhere and this water epidemic is supposedly affecting the entire world, why does the author only give us a pocket of the whole story? What’s going on in other countries? Why is the American government so standoffish to its own states that are suffering? Some of these details are alluded to—loosely—and I recognize that some of this approach may be commentary on a future government that is even more apathetic to its own people than it is now, but this aspect still bothered me. Only so much could be done about the scope, I realize, and the author prioritized the characters in their geographic situation, but I feel that these details could have at least been fleshed out more to give a larger idea of what was happening in the world at large.
There were some extremely graphic descriptions of torture and one sex scene that got pornographic. These things don’t generally bother me in a novel per se, but in both instances they felt like X-rated scenes shoved into what was otherwise a PG-13 novel, which is to say they felt highly out of place. They were jolting enough to take me out of the flow of the story and say, out loud, “Wait, what?” These contributed to the book’s overall inconsistency in tone.
In all, The Water Knife was not a bad read and it held my attention for the most part, but I kept waiting for it to break wide open and become truly great—except it never did. The author’s writing was decent and his concept was interesting, and there was undoubtedly a lot of research that went into making the concept believable and realistic. However, based upon this work alone, I would probably not bother to pick up another novel by Bacigalupi. It’s not crap, it just isn’t my thing.