Oh my stars! You know how when I started this blog I said that I wanted to find those books that were the "if you only have time to read one book...read this one" kind of books? (She asks her possibly imaginary, definitely invisible fan base friends.) Well, Shipbreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi is one of those books.
It is the future Gulf Coast and the ocean liners of our time lay like dinosaur skeletons along the coastline, outdated and rusted, relics of the Accelerated Age with its fossil fuels and crude steel. Our protagonist, Nailer, and his crew are shipbreakers, scavengers climbing through the tight ducts and deadly mazes of the monoliths to pull out precious copper wire and anything else of value for their crew bosses, trying to earn quota. It is a harsh existence, a mad struggle for survival in a shanty town of drug addicts and tribe-like crews, where it is every man or woman for themselves and even crew loyalties, though sworn by blood, are never a certainty. It is the only life Nailer has known. On the horizon he can see the clipper ships, shiny and new, travelling to destinations unknown, far away from the life of violence, poverty and pain to which he is accustomed. When he and his crew mate Pima come across a wrecked clipper and find the salvage includes a surviving young "swank," a girl of a high social order with more wealth in one piece of jewelry than they would see in a lifetime, Nailer imagines there might be a way out for him, a chance at a better life. But the risks, dangers and intrigue involved on his journey are more than even he could have imagined.
When I started this book, I knew it was good. I read a chapter and loved the dystopian setting, the Mad Max-ish feel of the whole thing. But I put it down, waiting for a "good time" to read. A mystical time when I didn't have babies to feed, children to teach, dinner to get on the table. I thought I would sneak in a chapter here and a chapter there between my responsibilities and post-9:00 p.m. narcolepsy. Today my sweet wee Puddle is not feeling well and needing to be held while he naps, so I thought to myself, "Well, this will be a good time to read." By chapter three, I was a goner. Like, throwing hot dogs and Little Debbie snacks at the kids, yes-you-may-use-a-Sharpie-to-do-your-copywork-just-leave-Mummy-alone kind of gone. I didn't just want to keep reading. I needed to. I had to. It was my life's purpose.
This book is like The Lord of the Flies, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Horatio Hornblower had a baby in a post-apocalyptic, quasi-industrial world and it works. Like, really works. All the way. I was engrossed the entire time, always thinking the end of the next chapter would be a good place to stop, always on the edge of my seat and wanting more by the time it arrived. I loved the moral ambiguity of the characters. From the tattooed, scarred shipbreakers to the well-dressed, haughty swanks, the only thing at times distinguishing the "good" guys from the "bad" is a lack of purely evil intention. This story is fast-paced and as rough as the shipbreakers themselves, but it is also well-crafted, imaginative and a really, really good read.