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Literature / The Drowned Cities

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"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.
  • After the End
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Arguably Stern, who dies begging Ocho to keep taking the fight to the enemy.
  • Animal Motifs: Sayle is compared to both a praying mantis and a coywolf.note 
  • 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.
  • Arc Words: "Fight the good fight, soldier boy." Repeated at various points by various characters, it serves as a constant reminder of just how pointless the war in the Drowned Cities has become.
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  • 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 not Axe-Crazy and is all the more dangerous for it.
  • 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.
  • Bigger Stick: The Army of God has managed to strike up a contract with some outside weapons dealers and has imported actual artillery. This completely tilts the war in their favour—for the moment, at least.
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  • 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.
  • Break the Cutie: Mouse, courtesy of Sayle and his goons.
  • Broken Bird: Mahlia, who hides her trauma under sarcasm and cynicism.
  • Broken Pedestal: Stern to Ocho
  • 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.
  • Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough: Inverted. Sergeant Ocho is as reasonable as a soldier boy can be, while Lieutenant Sayle is a psychopathic sadist.
  • 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.
  • China Takes Over the World: China (along with Seascape Boston) is the most powerful and influential nation in the setting.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Inflicted on Mahlia by the Army of God, and Mahlia, Tool, and Mouse by the UPF.
  • Colonel Kilgore: Lieutenant Sayle. He enjoys the constant warfare, doesn't have any particular attachment to any side, and seems to get off on participating in violence.
  • Crapsack World: The Drowned Cities themselves, which are flooded out, decaying, and fought over by local warlords who've long since forgotten the original grievance.
    • World Half Full: The setting as a whole remains this, and while there's no fixing the Drowned Cities, the ending implies that things may get better for Mahlia and her allies.
    • Wretched Hive: The Cities likely qualify, even by the standards of the setting. The phrase "pure Drowned Cities" is used to imply that someone is either a) a survivor or b) a complete barbarian.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Soa gets eaten alive by wolves, while burning to death. Mahlia doesn't play nice.
  • The Cynic: Mahlia, Ocho, and Tool
  • Damned by Faint Praise: Mahlia tells Ocho that she saved his life because "you act almost human."
  • Dark Messiah: Stern, Sachs, and every other warlord who promises salvation to his followers. Stern, for instance, honestly seems to believe he is going to reunite America.
  • Determinator: Mahila is a positive example. The various warring factions are all negative ones as their inability to Know When to Fold 'Em has prolonged what is now a truly pointless war.
  • Disabled Hottie: Ocho certainly finds Mahlia attractive.
  • Disunited States Of America: The USA has gone to hell. Seascape Boston remains a superpower, but the rest of the country has fallen to pieces, with the interior being abandoned to the warlords.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Mahlia, Mouse, Tool, and Ocho all bite back against Sayle and Stern in the climax.
  • The Dragon: Lieutenant Sayle to Glenn Stern, and arguably Sergeant Ocho to Sayle.
  • Ear Ache: Van, one of Ocho's soldier boys, is missing both of his ears.
  • Evil Is Not Pacifist: The soldier boys are actively repulsed at the notion of turning in their weapons.
  • Evil Is Petty: The soldier boys are little more than swaggering thugs, lording it over people who are too frightened or too weak to fight back. Soa is the standout, trying to force Mahlia to lick his boots because she presumed to question his prejudices—prejudices that, to put the icing on the cake, Soa doesn't even comprehend in the first place.
  • Evil Mentor: Sayle to Ocho and the rest of his soldier boys. Ocho is fully aware of this, though the rest of the boys idolise the LT.
  • Eviler Than Thou: The UPF vs The Army of God vs Taylor's Wolves vs The Freedom Militia vs Tulane Company vs god knows who else.
  • A Father to His Men: Ocho tries to be this to his boys, but has trouble with it given how screwed up he is, and the fact that Sayle is always looking over his shoulder.
  • Fingore: Mahlia lost a hand to the Army of God. Sayle later takes the little finger of her working hand, and Glenn Stern has Mouse's hand mutilated.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Mahlia and Tool. Mahlia and Ocho are at least fire-forged teammates.
  • Florence Nightingale Effect: Toyed with in just about every way with Mahlia and Ocho, who meet when Sayle forces her to patch Ocho up at gunpoint. There's an instant connection, and each one develops some respect for the other—respect that manifests as Ocho wanting to burn her into the unit, and Mahlia deciding to save Ocho when she uses coywolv musk to loose an entire pack on his comrades. This later develops into a strange, Worthy Opponent vibe, and they ultimately ally at the end of the book.
  • Forever War: The fighting in the Drowned Cities has been going on for decades at the least. Mahlia was born and grew up during a truce, enforced by Chinese peacekeepers, but the moment the peacekeepers pulled out, the bloodshed started up again.
  • The Fundamentalist: General Sachs and his Army of God followers.
  • Genius Cripple: Mahlia may be down a hand, but she's still one of the smartest people in the novel, bar none.
  • Gladiator Games: Tool was forced to participate in them by Stern in the backstory.
  • Glorious Leader: Stern to the UPF, Sachs to the Army of God.
  • The Golden Rule: Sneered at by the soldier boys. "That's peacekeeper talk."
    • Pay Evil unto Evil: Also sneered at. The warring factions believe that you have the right to do what you want as long as no one can stop you.
    • Might Makes Right: The philosophy that the soldier boys operate by.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: The soldier boys of the UPF brand their faces to mark them as Stern's.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Ocho is very jealous of Mahlia and Mouse/Ghost's relationship, not because he's particularly interested in either of them (though see Ship Tease, below) but because the fact that Mahlia came to save Mouse makes him painfully aware of the fact nobody came for him.
  • Guile Heroine: Mahlia, who survives on her brains more than anything else.
  • Handicapped Badass: Mahlia, who's missing her right hand, pushes into this territory due to her resourcefulness.
  • The Heavy: Sayle, who gets far more screentime than his boss, and moves the plot until the final chapters.
  • Heel Realisation —> Heel–Face Turn: Ocho, after realising just how demented his boss is. He brings all his surviving boys along for the ride.
  • Heroic Bastard: Mahlia's parents were never married, and her father eventually abandoned both she and her mother when he fled back to China.
  • I Owe You My Life: Mahlia to Mouse, Ocho and Tool to Mahlia.
  • 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.
  • Killed Off for Real: Soa, Mahfouz, Stern, Sayle, Mouse
  • 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.
  • Lean and Mean: Sayle's skeletal build is frequently remarked on.
  • 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.
  • Motive Decay: In-universe and played for horror and tragedy alike. The various armies in the Drowned Cities probably had goals once upon a time, but the constant fighting and killing has caused their objectives to degrade to the point where they're more interested in settling scores and warring over city blocks than actually trying to accomplish anything.
  • 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 millimeters of killing him, but also devours a sizeable number of the soldier boys pursuing him.
  • Nietzsche Wannabe: Tool.
  • No More for Me: When Ocho sees Mahlia and Tool entering the city he initially thinks they cannot be here and decides he's having a bad reaction to the drugs he's taking.
  • 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.
  • The One Who Made It Out: Mahlia wants to be this. She's determined to escape the Drowned Cities.
  • 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.
  • Praetorian Guard: Stern's Eagle Guard. They're little more than Elite Mooks in the end.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: Standard soldier boy behaviour.
  • Rasputinian Death: Soa is set on fire and torn apart by coywolves.
  • 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.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Almost all the soldier boys, and especially Ocho.
  • Ship Tease: There are a few very subtle hints that Ocho may have a thing for Mahlia.
  • Smug Snake: Stern.
  • Sociopathic Soldier:
    • Most of the soldier boys talk like Jingos who have been fed slogans from a bygone era without any context, act like Conscripts, and are all afflicted with shell shock in one way or another.
    • Sergeant Ocho is a deeply screwed up and angry Broken Soldier, hiding his PTSD behind a wall of bitterness.
    • His commanding officer, Lieutenant Sayle in particular takes his cruelty to Psycho for Hire levels, being a cold-blooded sadist and icy Psycho who joined the UPF so he could inflict Cold-Blooded Torture on civvies and enemy troopers.
    • One of Ocho's men, Soa, is also a Psycho, of the Axe-Crazy Mood-Swinger variety. He has pretensions of being a Jingo, but doesn't even really understand what the words mean.
  • 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.
  • Teens Are Monsters: Almost all the soldier boys we meet certainly are.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: Mouse continues to stab Stern long after the man is bleeding out. The Eagle Guard treat Mouse the same way, emptying most of their magazines into him.
  • Too Clever by Half: Mahlia.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Dr. Mahfouz, who is killed by Ocho's boys while trying to help their victims.
  • 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.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Stern has a pretty ugly one.
  • War Is Hell
  • We Have Reserves: Stern, Sachs, and all the other warlords are only too willing to say this.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Stern honestly does seem to want to repair the United States, but behaves like a psychopath in order to do it.
  • Worthy Opponent: Ocho starts to see Mahlia in this light. Realising that she's coming after them just about gives him a heart attack.
  • Zerg Rush: The only "tactic" displayed by most soldier boys.


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