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The Water Knife

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

I've heard this categorized as "Cli-Fi", fiction dealing with climate change and its aftermath. There is no indication of how far into the future the events take place, I just hope if they are at all realistic it is well beyond my lifetime. The setting is primarily Phoenix, Arizona, with a few scenes in southern Nevada. Rivers, lakes, and reservoirs are at historically low levels. Phoenix is dying from drought and dust storms, although there is a large arcology being built by the Chinese. The South Nevada Water Authority, under its director Catherine Case, has been diverting as much of the Colorado River and it's multiple reservoirs as possible, creating a complex of arcologies of their own in Las Vegas. Several militias have been formed to patrol reservoirs, guarding against anyone who would encroach upon SNWA water rights. One of her enforcers (water knives), Angel Dominguez, is sent to Phoenix to investigate the death of another operative.

Other than the future scenario, this is more a neo-noir action thriller than it is SF. No matter how it's classified, it's an intense, brutal, and unrelenting adventure, very well written but also disturbing. Angel is clearly one of the bad guys, but he does live by a code. Case rescued him from prison and he is loyal to her, even later on when he has reasons to suspect she does not reciprocate. I'm not sure there is any good guy in the scenario, but if so it would have to be Lucy Monroe, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has worked in Phoenix for about ten years. In spite of the city's predicament, she now considers it home, and she only hopes to help as much as possible while also chronicling the pain. Other minor characters include Maria Villarosa, a teen Texan refugee, her friend Sarah, and friend/protector Noomie. Others needn't be named, they're typical black-hats; rogue water knives, territorial gangbangers, California operatives, and eccentric missionaries with a penchant for firearms.

The heart of the story involves the possible discovery of water rights agreements that pre-date any other on record, which could bring Phoenix out of the dust and ashes that are burying it. Or, if Angel does his job, those rights would be acquired by the SNWA, or if not, California could grab them, either of which would seal Phoenix's fate forever. For me, this was a true page-turner, reading almost like a screenplay, very vivid descriptions of the characters, the landscape, and the unrelenting heat and dust. Sometimes even too vivid, especially the frequent violence. It was inevitable I would think of this in film terms, and I have definite ideas of who would play Angel and Lucy. It's like a cross between Chinatown and No Country For Old Men, with a bit of Mad Max thrown in for good (or bad) measure. It's a land and water grab unparalleled in history. William Mulholland couldn't hold a candle to Catherine Case. It's not perfect though. I felt the action in the latter chapters was overblown, and the conclusion was anti-climactic. Definitely not a positive ending, but neither should that have been expected. Of the fourteen 2015 novels I've read so far, this one is definitely in my Top 5 for a Hugo nomination, possibly even my #1 pick (for now).


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Paolo Bacigalupi


Finalist for:
Campbell Memorial

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