Review: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Title: Ship Breaker

Author: Paolo Bacigalupi


Publisher: Brilliance Audio

Format: Audio CD

It’s probably unfair of me to even try to rate Paolo Bacigalupi’s venture into YA novels. First of all, I found his debut novel, The Windup Girl,  to be brilliant, leaving me with expectations that are perhaps a bit unrealistic. Secondly, I am not well-acquainted with many of the current young adult novels (aside from bestsellers like The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and *gasp* Twilight). What makes me even further unqualified is the fact that I didn’t actually read the novel, but rather listened to the audio version. If you had any sense, you’d stop reading now and ignore the rest of my review.

But alas, here I am, rating and reviewing Ship Breaker. The novel begins with the main character, Nailer, crawling through an abandoned ship duct to gather copper wiring. Economic conditions are dire in Orleans and gathering recyclable materials from sunken ships is the only opportunity for a teen to make a living. While Nailer is scavenging for material, the duct collapses and he nearly drowns in a pool of valuable oil. His misfortune continues when he is confronted by his drug-addicted and abusive father. Making matters worse, a devastating hurricane soon strikes the city, nearly taking Nailer and his father with it.

After the storm settles, Nailer and his crew boss, Pima, come across a sunken, luxurious yacht. They board the ship, eager to claim their new found wealth, but their lucky strike has one survivor — a rich girl named Nita. Her life is the only thing that separates Nailer and Pima from a new life. It is a bad time for Nailer to get a conscience and he must decide if he should save the swank girl or collect his treasure. Either way, his father will come looking for him, and won’t play nearly as nice.

As one would expect from Paolo Bacigalupi, this novel is a dystopian adventure that is bleak to say the least. It is certainly more mature than the other YA books I have read, sparing no violence or grim imagery. Nailer is a likable character — he has conflicting emotions about the swanks and his father, but is generally a moral creature. I sometimes questioned his motivations (such as when he returned to his abusive father after he nearly drowned), but he is a teenager and teenagers don’t always do things that make sense.

The story and world building are good. The settings of the abandoned ships are rich with imagery and Bacigalupi is effective in drawing the reader into the story. It’s a hard novel for me to criticize, but I will admit I was hoping for something more. I would have liked to understand the economic conditions of the world in greater depth — why ship breaking was such a valuable operation and why the raw material couldn’t be used to manufacture goods of their own. It would be believable with an anarchic society, but the light and heavy crew were highly organized and worked directly with major corporations.

Nit picks aside, Ship Breaker, is an enjoyable read and I will likely pick up The Drowned Cities to explore the world in greater depth. If anyone is looking for a dark YA dystopia or wants to explore more of Bacigalupi’s works, Ship Breaker is a good novel. If you are new to Bacigalupi, I recommend that you start with The Windup Girl.

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