"You live in a barbarous place. You cannot be blamed for trying to survive. If there were gods who would have judged you, they have long ago fled the Drowned Cities."
The Drowned Cities is a science-fiction novel by Paolo Bacigalupi and the companion piece to Ship Breaker. The novel is set in the flooded interior of the United States following the melting of the polar ice caps.There is no law and order in the Drowned Cities. Armies of soldier boys, with titles like the United Patriotic Front (UPF), the Army of God, and Taylor's Wolves war over the wreckage of what was once the world's greatest superpower, bullying and killing anyone they feel like. Teenage Mahlia, left maimed after an encounter with the Army of God, just wants to get on with her life, and eke out a living among her fellow refugees as a doctor's assistant. A chance encounter with a wounded halfman named Tool, and the subsequent press-ganging of her friend Mouse into the UPF, however, upset Mahlia's life and put her on a collision course with the soldier boys and their leader, Colonel Glenn Stern.
This novel provides examples of:
Action Survivor: Mahlia and Mouse, who've managed to survive one disaster after another on their wits and ability to run.
Actual Pacifist: Doctor Mahfouz, who discourages Mahlia from so much as saying bad things about people, let alone resorting to violence.
Alas, Poor Villain: Arguably Stern, who dies begging Ocho to keep taking the fight to the enemy.
Antihero: Mahlia's a Type IV, who will do horrible things in furtherance of a good cause. Tool is a Type V, distinguished from the genuine villains only by his honour code.
Antivillain: Ocho, who is as much a victim of the war as Mahlia and Mouse and genuinely cares about the boys under his command.
Ascended Extra: While Tool was hardly a minor character in Ship Breaker, his role in the plot is considerably more important in The Drowned Cities.
Axe Crazy: Soa, one of Ocho's soldier boys, who flies off the handle at slightest provocation and gets off on violence and bullying. Lieutenant Sayle, it should be noted, is notAxe Crazy and is all the more dangerous for it.
Badass: Tool (bred for warfare), Ocho (who once killed eight gun-toting opponents with a knife), Sayle (the survivor of almost two decades of warfare), and Mahlia herself.
Bad Boss: The revelation that Stern is one is what triggers Ocho's Heel-Face Turn. Sayle is one from the time of his introduction.
Big Bad: There are many warlords contending for the title, but Glenn Stern is the one the reader and Mahlia actually interact with.
Bittersweet Ending: Hell yes. Mahlia gets out alive and recruits Ocho and his soldier boys into helping her escape. The situation in The Drowned Cities is as bad as ever though, and Mouse, who she came to save, ends up dead.
The Bully: Most soldier boys, especially Soa and Sayle. They honestly believe that if you can't defend yourself they have a god-given right to victimise you—and that you should be grateful for it as, after all, they're doing it for your sake.
Child Soldiers: The entire story is built around them. The fighting in The Drowned Cities has been going on so long that there simply aren't any adults left. Ocho is a Sergeant in his late teens, and Lieutenant Sayle, who's in his twenties, is ancient.
Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Most of the soldier boys are terrible shots. Justified as they're a bunch of child soldiers with no training. Tool shreds them with ease, and one suspects that most of the villains from Ship Breaker could do the same.
Insane Admiral: Colonel Glenn Stern is demonstrably insane, viewing himself as a messianic figure destined to reunite America. General Sachs of the Army of God is implied to be as bad or worse, as is Tool's former commander, General Caroa.
It's Personal: Sayle takes Mahlia's humiliation of him personally.
Kick the Dog: The soldier boys spend most of their time doing this, tormenting civillains who pose no threat to them, simply because they are unarmed. Specific examples include Soa's bullying of Mahlia (which includes wiping his dead comrades' blood on her face and trying to force her to lick his boots), and Sayle's mutilation of anyone who irritates him in the slightest.
Knife Nut: Stern, Sayle, Ocho, and every other soldier we meet.
Knight Templar: Assuming he believes his own BS (and he seems to) Stern.
Lack of Empathy: Most soldier boys, who can't empathise with anyone outside of their squads. Soa and Sayle are even worse, failing to empathise with anyone other than themselves.
Like Brother and Sister: Mahlia and Mouse, with her as the older, responsible sibling, and him as the young, impulsive one.
Maligned Mixed Marriage: Mahlia and the other castoff children get in a lot of trouble for being half-Chinese/half-American. As much as the locals hated the peacekeepers, they hate the locals who married them, and their mixed blood offspring, even more.
The Medic: Mahlia and Mahfouz play this role to an entire community. Ocho considers recruiting Mahlia to be his squad medic at one point.
Moral Myopia: The UPF members believe that every faction but their own is evil, even though they all commit the same kind of atrocities. It takes Stern attacking one of their own for Ocho to realise how bad he is.
Murder Is the Best Solution: Mahlia and the soldier boys share this attitude. Doctor Mahfouz actually calls her out on her willingness to kill Amaya when the latter threatens to rat out his and Mahlia's hiding place to Sayle.
Neck Lift: Sayle does it to Mahlia during their first meeting.
Never Smile at a Crocodile: The king alligator that ambushes Tool near the start of the novel not only comes within milimetres of killing him, but also devours a sizeable number of the soldier boys pursuing him.
Not So Different: Mahlia and the soldier boys are all victims of the war, who view violence as the appropriate response to problems, are out for themselves first, and others later. This is pointed out by Dr. Mahfouz, Ocho, and others, with Ocho viewing Mahlia as "pure Drowned Cities."
Odd Friendship: Tool (living warmachine) and Mahlia (crippled victim of warfare). From the looks of the ending, Mahlia and Ocho may be heading the same way.
Old Soldier: Courtesy of the kind of war they're in, Ocho (late teens) and Sayle (in his twenties) end up falling into this trope.
Paper Tiger: The Chinese peacekeepers accused the warlords of being this, since they fled whenever the peacekeepers showed up. The warlords accused the Chinese of the same thing, especially after they fled back to Beijing.
Parental Abandonment: All the soldier boys are without family, as is Mouse. Mahlia's mother was raped and murdered by the soldier boys and her peacekeeper father fled back to China.
Patriotic Fervor: How Stern justifies what he does. Soa uses a similar excuse, though underneath, he's just a sociopath looking for a chance to hurt somebody. He, like most of Stern's soldier boys, talks a good game about reuniting the country, but has no real understanding of what a country even is.
Politically Incorrect Villain: Most of the soldier boys (and more than a few of the local civvies) display extreme xenophobia towards Mahlia and other "castoffs". There's also a degree of casual misogyny, which makes sense given that most of the boys don't see girls outside of the nailsheds. Soa is easily the worst in this regard, having a minor Freak Out! whenever his prejudices are questioned.
Sadist: Lieutenant Sayle, who just enjoys hurting people.
Savage Wolves: The coywolv are coyote/wolf hybrids. Mahlia looses a pack of them on Sayle's men, resulting in numerous deaths and even more injuries. The scene where three of them tear a burning Soa to pieces is pretty gruesome.
Scavenger World: Though it's not as central to the plot as it was in Ship Breaker, this is still very much the case. The Drowned Cities themselves are one giant scavenge heap.
Sociopathic Soldier: Most of the soldier boys, running the full gamut of Types I, II, III, and IV. Ocho is a particularly screwed up Type IV with shades of Type III, Mouse/Ghost is becoming a Type III, while Soa and Lieutenant Sayle are hardcore Type IIs who just like hurting and killing people. Sayle in particular takes this to Psycho for Hire levels, being a cold-blooded sadist who joined the UPF so he could torture civvies and enemy troopers.
The Sociopath: Lieutenant Sayle evidences strongly psychopathic behaviour. One could make a case for the oh-so Axe Crazy Soa as well.
Straight Edge Evil: Sayle doesn't booze, drug, or use prostitutes. This has less to do with morality and more to do with the fact that killing and hurting people is what gets him off.
Teenage Wasteland: Not quite, but getting there. The only adults we meet are Dr. Mahfouz, Colonel Glenn Stern, and Lieutenant Sayle.
Trigger Happy: Some of Ocho's troops definitely have this problem, leading him to complain about their lack of discipline.
True Companions: The soldier boys in Ocho's squad. They may not like one another—in fact some of them hate each other—but each is aware that the others are all he has. They even pull a collective Heel-Face Turn.
The Unfettered: Tool, who appeared in Ship Breaker remains this, displaying loyalty only to himself and his own code of honour.
Unfriendly Fire: Ocho snaps and kills both Colonel Stern and Lieutenant Sayle in the climax.