****The Water Knife

Lake Mead, drought, California

Echo Bay Marina, Lake Mead National Recreation Area (photo: James Marvin Phelps, Creative Commons license)

By Paolo Bacigalupi, narrated by Almarie Guerra – In the American Southwest, Nevada (specifically Las Vegas), Arizona, and California are battling over a dwindling water supply caused by climate change, population pressure, and brazen political brokering. So far, this story could be a repeat of the nightly news, right?

In this novel, however, the situation has escalated (as it well might IRL). States have declared their sovereignty, closed their borders, and enforce interstate transit with armed militias that shoot to kill. Zoners (Arizonans) have few ways to make a living, and those with weapons prey on the desperate poor. To have water is to be rich or, as the saying goes, “water flows toward money.” The wealthy have bought their way into “arcologies”—high-rise buildings with complex plant and aquatic ecosystems for recycling and recirculating virtually every drop of water.

In Las Vegas, the Cypress arcologies were built by Catherine Case, nicknamed the Queen of the Colorado River, and head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Las Vegas is to some extent thriving, because of her cunning and cutthroat tactics. But Phoenix is dying.

Angel Velasquez, one of the book’s three protagonists, is an ex-prison inmate—smart, ruthless, a “water knife” who works for Catherine Case, cutting other people’s water supplies. Lucy Monroe is a Phoenix-based Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and social media star (#PhoenixDowntheTubes) who just might have a lead on some serious water rights, and Maria Villarosa is a highly disposable Texas refugee barely surviving in Phoenix and at the constant mercy of a brutal gang headed by “the Vet.” People who get on the Vet’s really bad side are thrown to his pack of hyenas.

The book’s opening sequence gives a taste of the winner-take-all mentality. Clever legal maneuvering has stalled the filing of a water rights appeal by Carver City, Arizona, giving the Nevada National Guard a window of a few hours to attack and destroy the citiy’s water supply infrastructure. With Angel in the unofficial lead, it does.

Before too much time passes, Angel, who has a boatload of false identities, must visit Phoenix to investigate the mutilation death of one of Catherine Case’s undercover operatives, and the plot really starts to flow. He finds Phoenix swimming with Calis—Californians also working undercover to assure that state’s gluttonous water requirements are met, regardless of the fate of everyone upriver. Before long, all the players are after the same thing—original water rights documents that would supersede everything on the books—and no one is sure who has them. This apocalyptic thriller is set in the not-too-distant future, and Bacigalupi takes real-life issues and situations several steps farther, adds in toxic intergovernmental rivalries and a healthy dose of greed, weaving them into an exciting, plausible, and thought-provoking tale.

While the story is a critique of a governmental environment in which local interests are allowed to trump regional and federal ones, it never reads like a political tract. And, while quite a bit is imparted about the issue of water rights and reclamation strategies, it isn’t a legal or scientific tome, either. It’s a thriller about a compelling trio of people with different motivations, different places in the water aristocracy, and different strategies for coping. The drought, dust, and poverty that envelop Angel, Lucy, and Maria and their cities affect everyone who lives there. The universal catastrophe turns Maria’s musing about how this desperate situation came about into a powerful warning: “Somehow they hadn’t been able to see something that was plain as day, coming straight at them.”

A lot of powerful straight journalism has been written recently about water rights, droughts, agricultural demand, and intergovernmental bickering about rights. In looking a few years forward, this important novel makes the stakes eminently—and memorably—clear.

Almarie Guerra does a solid narration, putting just the right Latino topspin on the Mexican voices. A slightly longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

Ripped from the Headlines Reading list:

“Rich Californians balk at limits: ‘We’re not all equal when it comes to water’” – The Washington Post, June 13, 2015
“In epic drought, California’s water cops get tough at last,” WIRED, June 16, 2015
“The Dying Sea: What will California sacrifice to survive the drought?” The New Yorker, May 4, 2015
“Where the river runs dry: The Colorado and America’s water crisis,” The New Yorker, May 25, 2015