In my review of Ship Breakers, by Paolo Bacigalupi, I said that "...the main reason I kept reading was Tool--an utterly fascinating character who is the most science-fictiony part of the book, what with being a product of genetic manipulation. There is clearly more of his story to tell--I hope it plays a large part in the sequel, coming out sometime next year."
And lo, the sequel (or rather, the prequel) is out, and Tool is a central character! And it was good.
The Drowned Cities (Little Brown, YA, 2012) takes place before the events of Ship Breaker. Tool, a human/animal hybrid, bred for war, has broken free of his captors. Half-men like himself are supposed to lose their will to live when their master dies, and they are the last of their pack, but Tool is different. Through the jungles and swamps of a future world of flooded cities and chaos a ragtag army pursues him...but he is a survivor, and even weakened by wounds that would have killed a lesser creature, he escapes...
And is found by two children, Mahlia and Mouse. Both are unwanted flotsam in this war-torn world. Mahlia, the daughter of a Chinese peacekeeper and a Drowned Cities woman, became a despised outcast when the Chinese withdrew and her father left. She escaped into the jungle, putting her own survival ahead of any altruistic thoughts for others, but lost her hand to one bloodthirsty faction in the process. Marked by her Chinese features, she's a lightning rod for fantastical hatred. Mouse's family was killed in more random slaughter--in this world, random slaughter is pretty much the order of the day-- and neither Mahlia or Mouse can envision a happy ending.
But when Mahlia and Mouse meet Tool, and the soldiers hunting him, things change.
It is a fearsomely dark place, this story. The children suffer. There is death--senseless, brutal, and bloody. There isn't a whole lot of hope. But still, Mahlia, and Mouse, and Tool are characters to care fiercely for. And Tool, impossible, unpredictable, unimaginable, makes it seem almost as though there can be a happy ending after all....keeping me reading as the characters wade through a swamp of near-death experiences and the horrors of insane, chaotic war.
I'd actually suggest reading this one before Ship Breakers, as this allows the reader to meet Tool for the first time here. In this book, a lot of the internal tension comes from not knowing if Tool can be trusted, not knowing if he can care for anything outside his own survival. Will he turn on the children, or will he help them? Is he a person to care about, or a monster?
The second reason (Tool being the first one) that the book is not entirely grim is that, even though every page makes it seem more likely that Mahlia and Mouse will be broken by violence, there is always just enough hope that they can survive with their fundamental selves intact, and make it through. In describing what happens to them, there's just the right balance of distance vs. immediacy. The reader is right there, caring fiercely, but is also able, like Mahlia herself does, to think about abstractions-- morality, altruism, and the effects of war on ordinary people.
In short: riveting, dark, powerful, and not one I'm giving to my eleven year old to read. However, I'd give this one to a YA reader who loved the Hunger Games, in a somewhat testy way: "ok, kid, you want senseless violence and struggle to survive in a dystopian world (one that seems much more horribly probable), and kids hurt and twisted through no fault of their own, take this!"