Paolo Bacigalupi’s remarkable debut novel The Windup Girl won the Nebula Award and tied for the Hugo award, so of course, I knew that his first young adult novel, Ship Breaker, would be great. And it was. But what I wasn’t prepared for was how different Bacigalupi’s young adult fiction would be from his adult work.
Ship Breaker is set in a degraded, post-peak-oil world where the drowned coastlines are littered with the smashed wrecks of old sea-freighters, all acrawl with desperately poor “ship breakers” — scavengers who get paid a starvation wage to extract the steel, copper, and oil reserves from the hulks of the old world. Nailer is a young boy, 14 or 15, on a “light duty” crew, and he’s skinny enough to eel his way into the ducts of the ships and tear loose the copper wire; if he gets enough out to make quota, his crew eats. If not, they risk being fired, and turned loose to sell their bodies (or parts of them — kidneys and eggs and eyes), beg, or steal.
Even for a light duty scavenger, Nailer has it hard; his drunken, amphetamine addled father has grown more and more vicious since the day his mother died, and is so brutal that he even beats Nailer after he is badly injured (and nearly killed) in a mishap on one of the freighters. But still, Nailer rescues him when a “city killer” storm sweeps the Gulf Coast, finding a sympathetic adult to carry his unconscious, amphetamine-drained father to high ground, because despite it all, Nailer is fundamentally good.
And that’s why Nailer rescues the young aristocratic girl he finds in the wreckage of a high-tech schooner that is wrecked in the storm, and how he finds himself embroiled in a quest to rescue her and take her away from the coast, up to Orleans, to help change the destiny of one of the great corporate empires that live on the blood and rust of Nailer and his people.
Ship Breaker and Windup Girl share the same post-peak-oil, corporate-kleptocratic setting, but the similarity stops there. Where Windup Girl was dense and lavish, Ship Breaker is lean and fast-moving, the description spare and precise, whittled down to the bones. Where Windup Girl‘s plot meandered around on a tour of the beautifully realized imaginary world it described, Ship Breaker moves like it was fired out of a cannon, blurring past with tight, fast pacing (I read the whole book in two sittings).
But like Windup Girl, Ship Breaker is very, very good. Bacigalupi’s starting to remind me of one of my favorite authors, Kathe Koja, who’s adult work is very bit as elaborated and lush, and whose YA is every bit as spare and clean (Koja’s split the difference in her latest book, the very highly recommended dark erotic war-novel Under the Poppy).
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