Book review: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife is a smart, fierce, propulsive thriller and an unsparing look into a future that seems all too real. In this book’s timeline, drought and climate change have devastated the American Southwest; Texas has basically gone to hell, and other states are waging something close to literal war over access to water from the Colorado River. The borders are shut down—state borders, that is. Nevada doesn’t want drought refugees from Arizona, Arizona doesn’t want refugees from Texas, and California (powerful and still water-rich) doesn’t want the poor from anywhere else. Borders are enforced with fences, checkpoints and state militias. The lucky rich live in enclosed “arcologies”—self-sustaining luxury towers with greenery and waterfalls, fed by recycled water and sealed off from the outside world. In this gritty, dust-blown future, the stories of three characters intersect. There’s Angel Velasquez, hired gun for the corrupt Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) and titular “water knife” (he cuts water access where needed to preserve Nevada’s power—including, in the first chapter’s spectacular set piece, by literally blowing up a water treatment plant with attack helicopters). There’s Lucy Monroe, a hardened yet still idealistic journalist who has come to Phoenix, Arizona to document the city’s decline (she’s a big contributor to the hashtag #PhoenixDowntheTubes). And finally, there’s Maria Villarosa, orphaned teenager and Texas refugee, alone in the world and just trying to survive.

The action kicks off with a gruesome murder. Lucy’s friend, a Phoenix water lawyer named James, had been on his way to broker some big, mysterious deal. And then he ends up dead. Angel, sent from Las Vegas to Phoenix to investigate shadowy threats to the SNWA, quickly determines that James’ murder is key. Angel and Lucy both clash and team up; intrigue deepens, double-crosses and plot twists abound, and poor Maria is accidentally caught up in the heart of it.

The plot is swift, and each puzzle piece carefully placed. Once the action really kicks into gear, I was tearing through the pages late into the night. Things get bad for each of our characters, and then worse. The details of this book’s near apocalyptic world are beautifully, terrifyingly rendered. You can feel the grit in your lungs as you read of Phoenix’s constant dust storms. The ways in which the upper echelons find ways to exploit and humiliate the less fortunate are uncomfortably, terribly real. Layered into the tight plot are plenty of smart observations and send-ups of society and our world, as well as a grim, gallows humor.

Multiple characters throughout the book make reference to Cadillac Desert, a real book published in 1986 about land and water policy in the Western United States. “My boss makes all her new hires read that,” Angel comments at one point upon seeing another character’s first-edition copy of the book. “She likes us to see this mess isn’t an accident. We were headed straight to Hell, and didn’t do anything about it.”

And that’s a primary theme of the The Water Knife: the inability, the refusal, to see the world as it is and the consequences that follow. Angel and his boss are both trying to see the world, sifting through patterns to detect threats to themselves. . . but they both know that they’re missing something. Maria is obsessed with trying to see the world clearly; her hopeful father, she thinks, had “ojos viejos”—old eyes. He was an optimist who believed in a beautiful future for himself and his daughter. She thinks that “he couldn’t see what was right in front of his face.” Maria vows to do better. Lucy has seen too much during her time in Phoenix, yet despite everything she wants to believe in a world where wrongdoing is punished, and her adopted city can rise again. (there’s a grim pun on “Phoenix rising” throughout the book).

At the end, it’s Maria who is given the last word; we end on her pragmatism, her pitiless and clear-eyed vision of dying Phoenix and the future. Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel is a warning—but it may, unfortunately, be all too descriptive as well. Most people don’t want to see hard truths. Bacigalupi’s book suggest that only the ones who do will survive—and even, at the expense of others, thrive.

1. CONTENT WARNING: Brutal violence, including torture. As I said, things go from bad to worse for all main characters.

2. The main characters are all compelling, through there were moments where Angel felt something like a stock hardened-assassin-with-hints-of-humanity character. Lucy and Maria are both awesome, however.


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