Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Article published on September 19, 2011.

Sadly, I have no strong feelings either way for Ship Breaker. Bacigalupi’s second novel is described as young adult fiction and I’m no young adult. However, I have read and enjoyed other works aimed at the younger reader, especially Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Bacigalupi’s first novel, and also a novella of his, won multiple awards, although I hadn’t read them, so I had high hopes for this post-apocalyptic tale. Sometimes, I think, it really is wise to avoid the hype. I’m not saying Ship Breaker isn’t a good book, what I am saying is that if I had no expectations, I might have enjoyed it more.

It is sometime in the future and the world’s economy has collapse. Oil has run out and environmental change means that hurricanes are stronger than ever. Coastal cities have been flooded and destroyed. Our story focuses on Nailer, the young man of the title. He is small enough and brave enough to strip wire from wrecked oil tankers washed ashore of the America coast. He works on a light crew, including Pima and Sloth. They all hope for that lucky strike; that find that will make the rich enough to escape the harsh life ahead of them. Not long after a near death experience when his crewgirl, Sloth, betrays her true colours, an enormous hurricane, called a city killer, hits the coast. Nailer is lucky to survive. Others aren’t so lucky. In the aftermath, Pima and Nailer come across the wreck of a luxury clipper. Nailer has just survived an accident and a storm, so maybe the Fates are on his side. Maybe the yacht will have enough salvage to secure his future. However, he finds a young girl, barely alive. What follows is a story of subterfuge and loyalties as Nailer crosses his father, and he searches for the truth about the girl, Nita.

Maybe I’m being a tad harsh, based on the target audience, but I found most of the prose un-engaging. The first half of the plot is mostly a description of the future told as the protagonists lurch from set-piece to set-piece. It wasn’t until the last 100 pages or so (323pp in the review edition) that the story found its feet and I was fully swept up with the characters. I read these last 100 pages in no time, while the first 100 took a couple of days to get into. At this point (spoiler alert), Nailer and Nita had escaped the beach, but the girl had been captured by her family’s enemies. Nailer had enlisted the trust of a captain and there was battle on the high seas. I would have preferred much less set up and much more adventure. It wasn’t until a real relationship between Nailer and Nita started to develop that it became interesting.

Don’t get me wrong, Ship Breaker has plenty of good ideas about the future and how the world collapsed. I especially enjoyed the half-men and the descriptions of Louisiana coast, post apocalypse. Many of the characters Bacigalupi describes are well-rounded and interesting, although the subtext of class, family and allegiances could have been more subtle. It is well written and well thought out, just lacking that certain something that would have made it a great read.

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