The Water Knife – Paolo Bacigalupi

About the Book

In the American Southwest, Nevada, Arizona, and California skirmish for dwindling shares of the Colorado River. Into the fray steps Angel Velasquez, detective, leg-breaker, assassin and spy. A Las Vegas water knife, Angel “cuts” water for his boss, Catherine Case, ensuring that her lush, luxurious arcology developments can bloom in the desert, so the rich can stay wet, while the poor get nothing but dust. When rumors of a game-changing water source surface in drought-ravaged Phoenix, Angel is sent to investigate. There, he encounters Lucy Monroe, a hardened journalist with no love for Vegas and every reason to hate Angel, and Maria Villarosa, a young Texas refugee who survives by her wits and street smarts in a city that despises everything that she represents.  With bodies piling up, bullets flying, and Phoenix teetering on collapse, it seems like California is making a power play to monopolize the life-giving flow of a river. For Angel, Lucy, and Maria time is running out and their only hope for survival rests in each other’s hands. But when water is more valuable than gold, alliances shift like sand, and the only thing for certain is that someone will have to bleed if anyone hopes to drink.

371 pages (hardcover)
Published on May 26, 2016
Published by Knopf
Author’s webpage
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I loved this book.

No, that’s not strong enough.

This book blew me away.

The Water Knife hits pretty close to home. I live out here in the bone dry west, where water is cherished and restricted. We watch the mountains every winter and anticipate what it will mean for the summer. My parents live in Las Vegas and frequently ask me about the snow in the mountains because the more snow we have, the more water they have.

In some ways I feel like I’m already living parts of this book, and every summer I will think of this book as our water gets more and more restricted.

This is a near future thriller. Technology is just advanced enough for it to feel like the close future, but what is really different is show destabilized the west is. The United States is still a governing power, but for all intents and purposes, the people who control the water really rule here. They control life and death. They control the flow of immigrants. They are the real power.

Immigration is a big, big deal (another issue that is common with today). Whatever happened in Texas isn’t really explicitly discussed, but it is a very big deal (I assume Texas dried up). Immigrants from Texas are the lowest class of people. They are marginalized, pushed aside, and ignored. They find havens in slums and are ruled by crime bosses. On the other side, the Chinese are over here building up all sorts of arcologies where the rich can live in nice apartments, have flushing toilets, and take showers.

Mixed into this slew of political and social destabilization are some characters that fall all over the map. Lucy is a reporter who has lived so long in the hot zone of Phoenix (where this takes place) that she’s basically turned native. Angel is a mobster style enforcer for the woman who rules the Colorado River. Maria is a refugee from Texas who is just doing her best to survive in a really shitty situation. They all gradually come together to paint a really complex and diverse personal portrait of the downfall of Phoenix and how the struggle for water has impacted millions of people across every social class.

The action is nonstop, and the book itself is completely and absolutely addicting. The tension is high, edge-of-your-seat kind of stuff. What is amazing is how Bacigalupi manages to keep readers hook and moving along quickly despite the fact that we never really know exactly what is happening until at least the halfway point. There are hints here, and hints there, and it’s obvious that something important is going on behind the curtain, but Bacigalupi keeps his readers strung along until the big Ah Ha moment.

The characters are just as riveting and deftly crafted as the political and social aspects. They are dynamic and well rounded, and absolutely heart wrenching in their own ways. In fact, it’s rare that I come across a book with characters that are just as impossibly dynamic as the world that they live in, but damn, Bacigalupi managed to pack this one full of amazing elements.

This book was incredible. Absolutely phenomenal for so many reasons. It’s thought provoking, believable, complex and uncomfortable. Yes, uncomfortable, and that’s actually a good thing. Uncomfortable books push readers to look at things a bit differently, and out here in the Wild West where the water issues really do regularly happen, I’m watching this book unfold around me. Every summer I see this in a small scale, and it’s incredible how Bacigalupi turned something that so many of us witness out here in our own small ways, and blew it up into a richly detailed, poignant narrative that everyone needs to read. These are real issues. This is a real problem. This is possible.

And damn, Bacigalupi hit the ball out of the park. This is one of the best books I’ve read (listened to, actually) in a long, long time.


This book is too good to rate.

2 Responses

  • Great review! I too loved this book. I live in LA and we can feel it coming. I got one of my reading groups to read this and they mostly hated it. I know. What? Wait. But I think it made them too uncomfortable because they can’t deal with what they know is coming.

  • Cheryl Holsonbake

    Thanks for this review! We are in Kern County, CA and the drought has hit us all (including the farmers that feed many in the world!) very hard. I’m picking it up from Audible.

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