One thing to know ahead of time is that this book is set in “The World of Ruin.” Before you even get into the story, you know that this place has been falling apart for so long that the people living here generally acknowledge it as a fact of life. It is unclear in this book if Ruin is a direct dark force, some sort of intentional malevolent happening, or just an example of the pattern we’ve seen in our own history; a civilization rises, becomes too bloated, collapses and falls, and on come the ravening barbarians, from within and without. But that does not matter for this story. What matters is that the author has created a world where the bones of a glorious, beautiful, powerful civilization are showing, while the flesh is falling off in rot. So don’t be prepared for valiant, radiant protagonists. People like that don’t live here. The whole place is falling apart, and even the most heroic knights, with the greatest love for the honor and dignity of days gone by, even they are soiled down deep and choking on ruin.
This may not sound like a good thing, and some people may indeed not enjoy this book. But I did. The protagonists Ovelia and Regel are weighed down with layers of old secrets, years of dirty deeds and hard choices, and blood they can’t wash off. Their secrets have secrets, and every choice and interaction resonates through their respective wells of deep, old, dark pain. It can get heavy and frustrating for readers sometimes – the emotional layering of the story is less of like a familiar epic fantasy and more like a spy thriller, Shakespearian tragedy or a really heavy family drama. You know, the kind where you want to shake a character and scream “Tell him! Tell her! Use your words!” But for all that, probably even because of it, the story kept a hold on me.
The old bones of this world ring sadly of past glory, but that echo and the glints of light, love and valor that shine off these two tarnished souls kept me hooked, grasping to see what good they might forge out of this world where everyone – even them – seems to have wheels tuning within wheels all driving toward an inevitable, staggering collapse. If I have made this tale sound heavy with gloom and doom, think of it this way: Imagine Lord of the Rings, but there is no Gondor, no Rivendell, no Shire. All the bastions of hope have fallen to Sauron. That jerk. You just have two old hobbits with a ring and a memory of what the sun looked like. And maybe you have Aragorn too, but he’s hooked on smack and has Arwen’s blood on his hands. Imagine that story, those people fighting against the dark to bring something good into the world. The darkness is deeper, but if hope can come through, then it’s all the more precious for that.
As brutal and emotionally wracking as “Shadow of the Winter King” is, it’s all to set the stage for a story to remind us that, no matter how dire things get, hope lives as long as there is still one of us left to strive for it. It isn’t until the last few pages, maybe even the last few words, but this story gives birth – from the hearts of some deeply troubled and wounded people – to a burst of light and human spirit that just might in the coming books push back against the tide of Ruin.
Sign of a good read.
This is Paolo’s second foray into life in America’s corpse after the seas have risen and the country has fallen to chaos. In Ship Breaker, the Gulf Coast was transformed into something like Gadani – an all-to-believable transformation. In the Drowned Cities it gets worse, with the entire Mid-Atlantic seaboard dissolved into a lawless realm of warlords shrouding themselves in hollow ideologies to spur children to war. Peacekeeping forces from a stable, civilized nation – China, in this case – have long since fled, unable to encourage peace and progress in the environment of hatred, greed and petty tit-for-tat warmongering. The flooded remains of D.C. have, in short, become an echo of Somalia.
This terrifying vision of our future isn’t the heart of the story – it is just the environment. The story follows Mahlia, a social castoff just barely maintaining a peaceful equilibrium on the outskirts of war. A life we would berely consider livable is shattered further when war comes to her, destroying her village and sweeping her up into its tide of hate and heatbreaking dehumanization. The author doen’t shy from human reality. This story hurts. Each miraculous turn of good luck – what we tend to expect to protect protagonists in stories we read – is balanced by a gut-punch of horror that only pushed her further into the darkness, until it really seems like there is no way out, no hope for the future of our species but a growing whirlpool of self-inflicted suffering.
In that morass is a deep-buried message of hope, the flipside to our species’ more prevalent and despicable traits. Ship Breaker dragged you down into abject poverty and despair, only to heighten the triumph as the protagonist clawed his bloody way out. A far as I’ve gotten in the Drowned Cities, it seems that Bacigalupi was only warming up. I can’t see how anything human cans urvive the meat-grinder Mahlia has fallen into. But I can hope.
The author achieves something awful and necessary with these stories. It is so easy to be shielded from the rest of the world here in the West. We can wall ourselves off from the brutal desperation and depravity our fellow humans are living across the world, and we don’t even know we’re doing it. We don’t even mean to. We’re shielded by comforts we take for granted, certain that our situation is permanent, that our nations and borders and goods and protections are inviolable. But they’re not. They’re words, vaporous notions. We have armies and laws and wealth, and we think they’ll protect us forever, but they might not. It’s all temporary. the world of the Drowned Cities reminds us that if we wall ourselves off from the rest of th world, turn a blind eye on the rest of the species, and get comfy in the certainty that we are safe and isolated, then the rest of the world will adapt and move on while we crumble. the tides of war and inhaumanity can roll up on any shore. If we hoard ou meager security to ourselves and turn our backs on the world, then the world will turrn its back on us. But if we continue to engage, grow, help and be helped, teach and learn, remain part of the worldwide community, then perhaps other nations and peoples will be tere to help us, to catch us, when our time comes to struggle and fall.
And that time will come. Brace yourselves. Nothing lasts forever, no matter how hard we believe.