Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, Championship Round :: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi vs. Auraria by Tim Westover

We arrive at the championship of the belated Fall 2012 Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books, which presents a classic David-and-Goliath matchup. Paolo Bacigalupi's The Drowned Cities, the follow-up to a National Book Award nominee and Michael L. Printz Award winner, had to be considered one of the favorites of this bracket, while the success of Tim Westover's independent book Auraria was quite unexpected. Auraria reached the finals with surprise wins over Stephen Graham Jones, Matthew Hughes, and Mary Robinette Kowal. Can it pull one more upset? I have read through page 200 of The Drowned Cities and Auraria, and the book I most want to continue reading to the end will be the champion of the Fall Bracket of the 2012 Battle of the Books.

The Drowned Cities: Little, Brown hardcover, May 2012, 434 pages, cover art by Neil Swaab. The Drowned Cities got to the championship with wins over Alexander Wisbal and the Hall of Heroes by Isaac A. McBeth, Dark Magic by James Swain, and Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson.

The Drowned Cities brings together Tool, the bioengineered man-beast who was many readers' favorite character in Bacigalupi's previous novel Ship Breaker, and Mahlia, a young "castoff." Mahlia is the daughter of a Chinese peacekeeper, who left her to her fate when the Chinese pulled out of the "Drowned Cities," the ruins of Washington, D.C. and surrounding areas. Tool has been badly wounded and a local militia is hunting the area for him and for Mahlia, for reasons I won't spoil. Mahlia administers antibiotics to Tool, hoping that he can recover and help her escape this battle-ravaged area. But Tool has little interest in her plans, and Mahlia's friend Mouse and her benefactor Dr. Mahfouz do not wish to leave, so by the midpoint of the book, Mahlia is facing some tough choices.

Auraria: QW Publishers trade paperback, July 2012, 390 pages. Auraria advanced to the finals with upset wins over Zombie Bake-Off by Stephen Graham Jones, Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews (aka Matthew Hughes), and Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Auraria, Georgia is an Appalachian mining town. James Holtzclaw has arrived by carriage with instructions from his employer Mr. Shadburn to buy out all the land in town. This he manages quite well, undeterred by all the spirits, ghosts, and other supernatural forces to be found in Auraria. It turns out that Mr. Shadburn grew up in Auraria. He is determined to build a dam, flood the entire town, and build a luxury hotel on the shores of the resulting lake. He wants to do this not to make money——indeed, he antagonizes Holtzclaw by his recklessness with his money——but to compel the residents to abandon their unhealthy fascination with gold-mining.

The Battle: The first thing to make very clear is that, through 200 pages, both of these books are excellent.

The Drowned Cities is the kind of engrossing, hard-edged YA story that we need if we are going to attract young readers to books in general and to science fiction in particular, and there is also plenty here to satisfy adult readers. The book matter-of-factly presents a nicely, and frighteningly, imagined fallen America of the future, focusing on the swampland around our former capital. For his protagonists, Bacigalupi pairs the amazingly powerful Tool with Mahlia, who survives by her wits. Early in the book, Tool wipes out half a company of pursuing soldiers by brute force. Later, Mahlia manages nearly to destroy the rest of the company through sheer cleverness. They make a terrific combination.

Auraria is a quieter book, but also very effective. Westover does a wonderful job combining small-town personalities with whimsically magical story elements, all tied together with a wry sense of humor. I will stick with my description in the semifinals, that the novel reads like a collaboration between Garrison Keillor and Neil Gaiman.

But as much as I'm enjoying both these books, I'm only permitted to choose one winner. The Battle comes down to two factors.

First, there is more depth to the characterization in The Drowned Cities. Mahlia is a believable and interestingly conflicted young woman, and Tool is a fascinating character, with a most unique outlook on life. The characters in Auraria are not as fully developed. Please note that this is not a complaint. Holtzclaw in particular is a fairly flat character by design——he is there as a straight man to observe the bizarre goings-on in Auraria, and that works quite well. But because I don't feel terribly connected to him as a character, Auraria is not quite so difficult to put down as The Drowned Cities.

The second deciding factor is story. While the first two rounds of the Battle of the Books are mostly decided on style points, since few of the books are very deep into their stories after 25 or 50 pages, plot becomes a greater factor by the semifinals and finals. And for all Auraria's strengths, midway through the book the plot isn't developing quite so much as I'd like. There is some friction brewing between Holtzclaw and Shadburn, but nothing to match the dramatic tension of The Drowned Cities. Mahlia has had to confront what seemed to be a monster, to overcome an entire company of soldiers, and now she faces an agonizing dilemma over her best friend and her mentor. Halfway through the book, her entire life has fallen to pieces. Readers don't know if she will be able to save herself or her friend Mouse, and we very much care whether she can. And that makes the book impossible to put down.

THE WINNER: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Congratulations to Paolo Bacigalupi, who is the fourth Battle of the Books winner, joining Elizabeth Bear, James Renner, and Ian Tregillis. We will feature The Drowned Cities in a full review at Fantastic Reviews, and we will also try to arrange an interview with Bacigalupi (although we already interviewed him once, so Paolo may have had his fill of us).

Thanks for joining us for the Fall 2012 Battle of the Books, and stay tuned for Battle of the Books #5, which will feature another array of talented authors, including Laird Barron, Keith Brooke, China MiƩville, Jane Rogers, a pseudonymously cloaked Melinda Snodgrass, Steve Rasnic Tem, and many others.

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