Ship Breaker

Ship Breaker

Author: Paolo Bacigalupi

Publication: 2010, Little, Brown & Company

Pages: 352

Overall Rating: bth_5-star-rating_zps467d5332[1]                       

Rating for Action: bth_45_zps06f87659[1]

Quantity of Action: bth_3-star-rating_zps73bdba73[1]

Age Category: 13+

Brief Summary:  Nailer works light crew in the ship breaking yards not far from the drowned city of Orleans.  He spends his days crawling through the ducts of ancient steel freighters, pulling up copper wire to be sold to the scavenge companies.  Starvation is a fact of life, and every day he doesn’t take a beating from his dad is a blessing.  He lives in the moment, taking life as it comes and trying not to think too hard about the future – especially about what will happen to him when he gets too big to work light crew.  Then a massive storm – a city killer – sweeps down across the beach.  And when it’s over, Nailer discovers that it’s left a new wreck in its wake – a sleek clipper ship, full of high quality scavenge.  It looks like Nailer’s days of poverty and hunger might finally over when he discovers that not all of the crew is dead.  One young girl is still clinging to life.  And when Nailer decides to save her everything changes.  All too soon he finds himself on the run, fighting to protect a girl he barely knows from forces he can hardly comprehend.

Age of Main Character: 15

What I Liked the Most: Ship Breaker won the Michael L. Printz Award.  It’s a beautifully written book and a joy to read.  But let me be clear.  Just because this is an award winning book, don’t make the assumption that it’s some piece of airy-fairy high literary fiction.  This is a hard scrabble adventure story set in a grim future of scavenge yards, flooded cities, hunger, and disease, and Bacigalupi is the kind of tough, no-nonsense writer who doesn’t shy away from blood and broken bones.  Ship Breaker is one of those books that works as great literature, a gripping emotional story, and a gritty thriller all wrapped into one.

I loved the descriptions of Orleans (really New Orleans and its sister city, Orleans II, which was built further inland but also fell victim storms and rising seas).  It’s full of decaying mansions, mosquitoes, and crowds of desperately poor people eating rats and wading through chest deep water because the salvage companies can’t be bothered to spend money on wooden walkways.  But it’s still a city of music, with brass bands playing out a funeral dirge in the background.

Bacigalupi has done a great job of portraying a future in which the desperately poor live in hovels and scavenge off the leavings of the old world, while the rich ‘swanks’ still have access to incredible high tech machinery – like clipper ships that uses high altitude parasails to skim across the water at incredible speeds, and half-men who combine the genetic material of humans, dogs, tigers, and hyenas to create loyal and intelligent killing machines.

What I Liked the Least: This is a minor point, but there were one or two times when Nailer had to be rescued by an adult.  I understand why Bacigalupi did it, but that’s definitely one of my pet peeves.  I hate it when authors write themselves into a situation where their teen heroes have to be rescued by a grown-up.  And that does happen in this novel.  But it doesn’t happen often, and by the end of the book the few scenes where Nailer needed help had been overshadowed by later events and faded into the background.

How Good was the Action?  Excellent.  This is not a non-stop action story.  But, there are still plenty of high adrenaline moments, and Bacigalupi does a fantastic job of bringing them alive.  The fights are vivid enough to get your blood pumping, and when Nailer has to kill another human being in order to save himself and his friends, it’s an incredibly powerful moment.  But it’s not just fights.  There are also some great chases and a fantastic scene early in the novel where Nailer has to escape a sealed oil tank before he drowns in the thick, black goop.  This is great stuff, and it comes with enough emotional resonance to pack a wicked punch.

How Engaging was the Story?   Nailer is a wonderfully intricate character, and the world he lives in is just as imaginative and full of life.  From the gorgeous writing to the beautifully imagined details of life in a half-submerged Gulf Coast, this is one story you’ll find impossible to put down.

Overall Assessment: Ship Breaker is a beautifully written and highly imaginative book that dumps you head-first into a hard-scrabble world of scavengers, con men, and killers.  I won’t pretend that it’s easy reading.  There are times when you can’t help but wonder if Bacigalupi’s world might be somewhere in our own not too distant future.  But for all that it’s a darkly fantastic story, full of rich characters and scenes of action and intense violence.  Don’t miss it.

Profanity: Yes.  It’s not horrible, but Bacigalupi isn’t one to shy away from the occasional four letter word.

Sex: No, though there are a few mild sexual references.  There’s also some fairly extensive use of drugs and alcohol.

Violence: Yes.  This can be a very violent and bloody book at times.  There are fights, and when they happen Bacigalupi knows how to make the blood flow.  People die, and on two very memorable occasions it’s Nailer himself who does the killing.  Those fights are bloody affairs, but they’re also emotional, and Nailer has to deal with what he’s done.

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