For starters, this book is *not* about a magical knife made of water… (which is, yes, sadly, what I thought this book was about upon first glance). But it’s a great story… a great story, though often dark and violent.
We all know that California gets its water from the Colorado River, which originates in states east and north of California. Now we all know that without that water, most of Southern California, at least, would dry up and turn into the desert that it is. But we also know that California has all the wealthy inhabitants, and water always flows towards money. This is actually a fairly accurate depiction of the history of water rights in the Southwest.
The Water Knife is a fictitious story set, say, 70 years from now, where the fight over water has taken on the nature of a civil war. Arizona, Nevada, and California are acting as sovereign countries, using their militaries, i.e. mobsters, gang members, undercover cops, and even military-grade weapons, to secure their water rights. Arizona, where most of the story takes place, has been on the losing end of this civil war for quite some time – California being the big player, the big winner so far, and Las Vegas holding a close second. As a result, the population of Arizona is in many cases at the poverty level because water is so scarce. Arizona looks more like the drug cartel-run Mexico of modern day than the prosperous urbanization that we know so well in Phoenix, etc.
That’s the backdrop to a thrilling story that follows a woman named Lucy, a journalist living in Phoenix, AZ, who writes stories shedding light on the ugly water battles and the ever-worsening situation in Arizona. We also follow the story of a man named Angel, who at the beginning seems to be nothing more than a hired thug of a woman who runs the water mafia in Las Vegas. Angel is sent to Arizona to follow up on some legal matters that arise in the beginning of this story. Lastly, we follow the story of a young woman named Maria, who lives in abject poverty. Her friend has turned to prostitution, and Maria desperately tries to hold onto her humanity and her dignity as her attempts at survival become more grave. The goal of almost all “Zoners” (as those who live in Arizona are called) is to get across the border into California, which is seen as a sort of a paradise or Zion where water flows freely. Maria’s one goal in life is to save enough money to get herself and her friend, Sarah, into California.
Bacigalupi weaves a story with an expert hand that intertwines these three disparate characters, giving us a glimpse of their humanity even amid some of the despicable acts in which they partake, either by choice or by desperation.
I do highly recommend this book, and having read The Wind-Up Girl, Bacigalupi’s first novel, a couple years ago, I can attest to his craft improving greatly upon a talent that was already formidable. This book kept me on the edge of my seat, had me genuinely concerned about the characters and simultaneously at times appalled at their behavior, and served as a very intriguing look at the power of those who control water in this Southwestern region of the United States.