Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

The more I read young adult (YA) fiction, the more I like it.

I was floored by Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel after reading it a couple years ago, a poignant story about a band of traveling performers in a post-pandemic world. Equally compelling, two teenagers with cancer search for the author of their favorite novel in The Fault in our Stars by John Green. You can read my review of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins on my website.

Image of Ship Breaker book jacket

Title: Ship Breaker
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, 2010
Audiobook: Narrated by Kristin Allison
Reading time: 7h 8m

For my latest YA adventure, I turned to one of my favorite dystopian authors, Paolo Bacigalupi. I’d already read his collection of short stories, Pump Six, the award-winning The Windup Girl, and the more recent The Water Knife. In Ship Breaker, Bacigalupi brings his dystopian world-building skills to the YA genre.

Nailer, the teenage protagonist in this well-crafted story, ekes out a living on the Gulf coast, indentured to a crew of scavengers stripping copper and other valuables out of rusting oil tankers in a post-oil, post-global warming world. Living in a shack and tormented by his drug addict father, Nailer dreams of one day sailing aboard the sleek, wind-driven clippers he sees on the distant horizon.

In the wake of a storm, Nailer and his friend Pima find a survivor aboard a wrecked clipper, the teenage Nita, daughter of the world’s wealthiest shipping baron. On the run from Nailer’s father, who wants to hold her for ransom, Nailer and Nita escape to the half-submerged city of Orleans, then board clippers for a tense chase across the Gulf of Mexico.

Bacigalupi’s world-building skills are highlighted front and center in Ship Breaker. In this dark and visceral near future, gene-spliced half men serve as thugs, water-logged and abandoned cities dot the Gulf coast, oil is practically non-existent, and sailing ships cruise across the arctic unfettered by sea ice. Everyone searches for the lucky strike, that trove of wealth that will change their lives and raise them out of their fetid existence at the bottom of the wealth spectrum.

This is a coming-of-age story for Nailer, born to an abusive, drug addicted father. Nailer struggles to be everything his father is not. To make himself better by hard work rather than luck, to keep alliances rather than stab his associates in the back, and to do the right thing even when it means risking it all.

Bacigalupi’s world-building skills are highlighted front and center in Ship Breaker.

The final quarter of the book—what you might call Act III in playwright parlance—takes the reader on an adrenaline-laced high seas race across the Gulf of Mexico. Can their ship outrun its pursuer? Does Nailer remember his own waters enough to safely navigate a clipper in the dark? Can Nailer outsmart his drug-crazed, machete wielding father in the hold of a capsized vessel? In print, it’s a page-turner. As an audiobook, you’ll turn the speed up to 1.5x to get to the final chapters.

Disappointments? The author left one loose end dangling. Readers never got a satisfactory explanation of the half-man Tool’s backstory, and why he lacked the loyalty common among all other half-men. Tool tells us, mysteriously, that a mistake was made during his conditioning, but that’s all we get. Maybe Bacigalupi left this open for a possible future sequel. If so, I want to read it.

I enjoyed this winner of the Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book. Its underlying theme of loyalty, great use of language, best-of-class world building, and suspenseful climax kept me reading and wanting more. This book takes the action and adventure of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel and spins it in an uncertain and gritty dystopian future that is terrifyingly palpable. I recommend it for dystopian fans of all ages, though early- to mid-teens should find the book especially satisfying.

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