SHIP BREAKER by Paolo Bacigalupi is another book where the setting plays an integral role in the story-telling.  It’s more than setting; it’s brilliant world-building.  The reader is plunged into a far-future world, where the worst-case scenario of global warming, pollution, and diminished fossil fuels are a reality.  The oceans have risen, hurricanes are so strong that meteorologists had to add a higher category of strength, and the oceans are slicked with oil.  On the Gulf Coast beaches, where this story is set, hulking shells of beached ships litter the shore.

One of my big lessons in this book was how to write description.  If you’re a writer, you hear it again and again: make sure you’re using all five of the senses.  When you have an experience, you don’t just see things–you smell things and hear things and taste things and feel things.  For so many writers their visual sense is the strongest and, the instinct is to just describe what you see.  Not so in SHIP BREAKER.  Our main character falls into oil.  He smells the petroleum.  It burns his throat and lungs.  He tastes it.  The slime is on his skin, irritating it.  I am SO there.

That’s the way the reader experiences the setting again and again in this book.  It’s one of the most visceral settings I’ve experienced in a long time.

Our main character is Nailer, a teenager who works the “light crew” on the beached ships, stripping the copper wires for scrap.  The symbols of his light crew team are carved into his cheeks and he takes his blood oath of loyalty very seriously.  Even when it would harm him, even when it’s smarter to be selfish in this dog-eat-dog world, Nailer is a loyal, moral character.  He struggles every time he’s faced with the decision of doing what’s right or doing what’s easy.  Nonetheless, every time he decides to do the right thing.

I love this about Nailer.  So often, characters are faced with a moral choice and of course they choose the right way.  In fact, they are often affronted at the idea of doing the wrong thing.  And they never look back at what might have been.  Nailer is very real in his uncertainty.

Another main character is Nita, a beautiful and wealthy girl whose clipper ship wrecks on Nailer’s beach after a massive storm.  The real character arc of this story is hers.  She’s soft and educated but she needs to learn how to be a survivor very quickly.  And by the end of the book, her character reflects Nailer’s rough edges.  Her speech mimics his.  She’s capable and strong.  While Nailer might be the story’s protagonist, Nita is an admirably strong supplement to him.

To add to these complex characters is Tool, a genetic hybrid of human, canine, and tiger.  In this time, these fierce animal-human hybrids are created and trained to be loyal to just one human, or patron.  Tool, however, is an anomaly.  He’s a half-man who is too smart to serve a patron.  You would think that would make him a free creature but Tool only seems alone.  In SHIP BREAKER, one of the predominant themes is family: the family you choose and the family you’re born with.  Nailer chooses his light crew as his family.   Tool never commits himself to anyone.  As a result, there’s a kind of cold hollowness surrounding this character.

Finally, along the themes of family, is Richard Lopez, Nailer’s drug addicted, drunk, bully of a father.  In this world, where the strong survive, Richard has the instincts and skills he needs: he’s brutal, strong, cunning, and warily respected.  In every way that matters, he is the exact opposite of Nailer.  And yet, somehow he’s also complex.  The reader is led to believe that his spiral into darkness was caused by the death of Nailer’s mother.  And Nailer has good memories of his dad which makes you assume that things weren’t always this way.  So, while it’s easy to hate the man, he’s not a cartoon villain.

One final note: this book is the most culturally diverse book of have read to date.  Nailer is probably of Latino descent (I make this assumption based on his surname, Lopez).  His best friend and crew boss, Pima, is described as “black as oil and hard as iron.” Nita is likely from India.  Most of the kids working on his crew are people of color and, quite frankly, I found it refreshing.

So, next time, I’ll look at the plotting.  SHIP BREAKER is, at its heart, an adventure story.  The pacing isn’t quite as fast as it could be but it’s still a compelling read.

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