Tuesday, July 23, 2013

YA Guy Reviews... SHIP BREAKER by Paolo Bacigalupi

YA Guy's taking a break from online activities for 10 days starting tomorrow. (True confession: it's one of the presents I promised my wife for our 20-year anniversary! Less time online = more time together!) I'll be back in August to regale you with more reviews, interviews, giveaways, guest posts, and commentaries--but not wanting to leave you hanging, I'm posting a review of Paolo Bacigalupi's YA science fiction novel SHIP BREAKER.

Enjoy, and I'll see you in a few days!

YA Guy had heard great things about science-fiction writer Paolo Bacigalupi’s debut YA novel, Ship Breaker.

Word on the street was that his novel is lyrical, intelligent, thrilling, inventive, and powerful. A must-read. One of the finest literary YAs around.

So I read it. And guess what?

All the hype is true.

Ship Breaker tells the story of Nailer, a teenage boy in a post-global-warming world who works along the Gulf Coast disassembling oil tankers from the fossil-fuel era. It’s dangerous work, where kids like the unlucky Jackson Boy get lost forever in the tankers’ guts and failure to meet the daily quota can result in expulsion from the crew and, like the unfortunate Sloth, a life without work or hope. For Nailer, what makes his life even worse is his father, an abusive drunk and drug addict who holds his son in a grip of fear. The only thing that keeps Nailer going is his dream of salvaging something truly valuable so he can follow in the footsteps of the man known as Lucky Strike, who bought his way off the ship-breaking crews when he discovered a hidden cache of oil. With a score that big, Nailer thinks, he’ll be able to leave his dad and sail away on one of the sleek clipper ships that have replaced the cumbersome tankers in this new era.

And then, one day, Nailer finds the wreck of a clipper ship, with a survivor inside: the daughter of one of the biggest shipping barons in the world. Should Nailer join forces with his dad, who plans to barter her life for gold, or help her in her fight for freedom?

Ship Breaker kept me riveted for a number of reasons. To begin with, its teen protagonist, Nailer, captured my imagination: a boy whom life has given every reason to be brutal, yet who struggles to remain decent and true. Then, too, I was drawn by the book’s examination of power and privilege, its exposure of the extremes of wealth and poverty that mar our own world. In such a world, Nailer and the other ship-breakers rely on nothing more than luck to see them through, as the following beautifully written passage illustrates:

Life was like that. There were Lucky Strikes and there were Sloths; there were Jackson Boys and there were lucky bastards like him. Different sides of the same coin. You tossed your luck in the air and it rattled down on the gambling boards and you either lived or died.

Nailer’s discovery that there’s more to life than luck--that there are things like loyalty and family, whether biological or not--gives Ship Breaker a satisfyingly human quality to complement its fantastically well-rendered future world.

I’ve been warned that the companion volume to Ship Breaker, titled The Drowned Cities, is a tough read, a book that delves in graphic detail into the horrors of war and human cruelty. I don’t doubt this; Bacigalupi doesn’t shy from ugly truths. But I’m looking forward to reading it, if only because it fleshes out one of the most intriguing characters in Ship Breaker: the hybrid warrior Tool, a being created to be an utterly faithful servant who nonetheless develops a will and a desire of his own. The question of Tool’s humanity is hinted at in Ship Breaker; I expect it to be explored more fully in The Drowned Cities.

And I expect that, in the process, the question of our own humanity will be explored as well.


  1. I've heard such great things about this book. I tried to read The Windup Girl by Bacigalupi and couldn't get into it — too much worldbuilding straight off, too little narrative — but apparently Ship Breaker isn't like that. I bought it, can't wait to read it with my 7th grader.

    Great review!


    1. Glad you liked the review, Stephanie. Truth be told, I had trouble with The Windup Girl too, which a student of mine recommended I read. Maybe I'll try it again now that I've read Ship Breaker (though I want to read The Drowned Cities first).

      Let me know what you (and your child) think about Ship Breaker when you're done!