Nailer is foraging for copper wire in the guts of an old tanker that has washed up on shore. The work is grimy, claustrophobic and very dangerous. Nailer is with a group of teenagers whose nasty boss expects them to meet their copper-wire quota or else they will be easily replaced by other youths. Nailer's world is ugly. His Dad beats him. Many people are high on drugs. Some sell their own blood for money. Some kidnap others and sell them for organ parts. Living in this degenerate futuristic society is so ruthless that it is either kill or be killed. Loyalty and trust don't really exist although teenagers try to establish it among their crews. But even this is shaky. The only safehaven for Nailer is with the adult, Sadna, a woman who actually shows kindness and caring in a brutal community.
Nailer's world is the result of humans causing global warming which has melted the ice caps and changed the climate. Hurricanes come so frequently and the ocean has risen so high it has submerged some cities completely. Nailer lives with poor, illiterate people who believe that the only way to improve their lot is to get lucky. When Nailer finds a clipper ship with a beautiful wealthy girl, Nita, he thinks about more than luck and money - he thinks about getting out. Out of the poverty. Out of the violence. Out of the despair. He wants to leave his city and be with Nita. The only problem is that others want Nita as well, but they want her for the money she will bring them either dead or alive.
The story is action-packed and full of violence. The author, Paolo Bacigalupi, does a nice job describing the details and incorporating the senses. I felt I couldn't breath along with Nailer when he was inside the tanker. Another strength in the writing is the internal conflict Nailer has as he debates doing the right thing or wrong thing. Some weaknesses in the story are how Bacigalupi never fully explains the new government and how the power has shifted in such a way that there are very few rich people. I never had a complete grasp of who was in control of the government and how it fit into the society. In addition, the characters are supposed to be illiterate but the voices are too educated. They swear a lot and I think the author was using that to show them as uneducated but they started to sound alike and it didn't ring true. The author does do a great job developing the character, Tool, who is part human and animal. I would have liked more of an explanation on why he isn't loyal to a master. That was not explained to the reader. Another part of the plot that was clumsy was when Nailer was taught to read in days. No one learns to read in days. That's just silly. The ending didn't bring closure between Nita and Nailer. Why isn't he on the ship with her? It seemed like it was written with a sequel in mind which I guess is supposed to come out in 2011.
Last, this is an incredibly violent book and much of it comes from Nailer's Dad and the adults. There are descriptions of dead bodies, Nailer and Pima discussing cutting off dead people's fingers to get gold rings, and selling Nita so her eyes and heart can be used by harvesters or her body to make babies. People are killed and mutilated throughout this entire book. Also, Nailer and Nita have a small romance going but they are too busy trying to stay alive for much to happen besides a kiss.
This book won the Prinz award and was a finalist for the National Book award. I was surprised because of the flaws in the plot. Also, the swirling tattoos the ship breaker crews have reminded me of Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld and didn't seem original at all. Bacigalupi is a good descriptive writer and readers will love the action, tension, and suspense, but I didn't think it was an awesome award-winning book just an entertaining one albeit extremely violent .
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