Favorite Books of the 2010s: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

This is a series of book reviews of my favorite books published between 2010 and 2019.


The Water Knife by Paolo Backigalupi (2015)

In the near future, climate change has brought about drought and constant dust storms in the American Southwest, resulting in the collapse of several cities as well as the state of Texas, and violent clashes among the rest over access to water. Las Vegas is ruled by Catherine Case, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, a ruthless and intriguing character who wasn’t in the book nearly enough. Angel Velasquez works for her as a “water knife,” cutting other’s water supplies so that Vegas can have their water. Case sends Angel to Phoenix, a city that is slowly dying, to investigate the murder of one of her undercover operatives. There Angel stumbles into a plot involving double-crossers, ruthless California operatives, an idealistic reporter who wants to expose the conspiracy, and a Texas refugee in the wrong place at the wrong time. Everyone is after the same Maltese falcon…I mean, senior water rights, which is apparently the key to controlling the Colorado River.

This is a thriller wrapped in a dystopian setting. This near-future Phoenix is choked with dust and awash in brutality. Prostitution, torture, gangs, crazy guys with packs of hyenas as pets — all here. California state operatives bomb dams. New Mexicans string up Texan refugees as a warning. This near-future vision of the United States is completely unrecognizable and yet seems all too plausible.

Once the three main characters–Angel, Lucy (the reporter), and Maria (the refugee)–come together, the plot starts to roll. There are near escapes, shootouts, betrayals, all kinds of excitement. It’s not a plot that would stand up to too much scrutiny, but who cares? The overwhelming importance of water rights in a setting where the rule of law clearly has no more meaning is not adequately explained, but the rights are a McGuffin anyway that keep the characters moving and changing sides. The characters themselves are conflicted, figuring things out as they go along, and seem very real, although Case, as one of the most intriguing characters, isn’t around enough for readers to figure out what makes her tick. This is a violent, brutal book, not recommended for the faint of heart, and it also functions as a warning of what climate change can drive us to become.

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