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Review of The Water Knife

Updated on October 22, 2020
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Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

La Santa Muerte
La Santa Muerte | Source

In the near future the Southwest of the United States is going drying. Climate change and political instability have let states and international corporations take advantage of legal technicalities to seize what water rights they can, leaving towns and even whole cities dry and barren. Rumor of old water rights that could make or break whole states surface in Phoenix, Arizona, so the Southern Nevada Water Authority sends its top operative, Angel Velasquez, to obtain them by any means possible. Angel is a water knife, a term used for water authority strongmen who use espionage, legal manipulation, violence and outright assassination to acquire and centralize water rights.

Also in Phoenix, the journalist Lucy Monroe is tracking these water rights for personal and professional reasons as she struggles with her feelings about the city and whether or not it can survive as climate refugees from Texas pour into Phoenix, placing additional burden on already strained resources. Among the refugees is young Maria Villarosa who works and schemes to find a way north to make a better life for herself.

The chase for these water rights leads to betrayal and revelation that collusion and conspiracy may doom whole communities just as much as the shifting weather patterns.

Author Paolo Bacigalupi at the 2012 Texas Book Festival, Austin, Texas, United States.
Author Paolo Bacigalupi at the 2012 Texas Book Festival, Austin, Texas, United States. | Source

Living Water

At its roots, the novel is an action-packed science-fiction novel examining the social and personal fallout from environmental degradation in the American Southwest. The characters are accessible and the plot moves briskly, taking a page from the pacing of an Ian Fleming spy thriller more so than traditional science-fiction, though there are some light cyberpunk elements. The book is helped by its various thematic developments, which are all layered in, so readers wary of enduring a 400 page lecture about the perils of climate change have nothing to fear. In fact, Dune probably has more environmental sermonizing than The Water Knife.

Most religious references are to La Santa Muerte. Given the setting, it is unsurprising most people seem to worship death; there’s little room for hope of a better future in this life or any other. A few passing references to official Catholicism are made, but almost always in a past tense manner, as though it is a religion that exists in the history of the world and the history of the characters (320). A group called Merry Perrys are religious Texan refugees of an evangelical variety that have more in common with Flagellants and other religious extremists that became popular during the years of the Black Death in Europe. As the novel progresses, themes of forgiveness and purification through fire come into play (311, 360).

All of this imagery means it is easy to read the novel not only as speculative and cautionary climate-fiction but also as a religious allegory. The idea that people and communities are given life and salvation through water is a biological necessity but comes across as a spiritual one as well. Because of the constant religious and post-religious themes and images and the constant preoccupation with water and thirst, it isn’t hard to link the whole novel with Jesus saying “whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him will never thirst” (John 4:14).

“Somebody’s Got to Bleed if Anybody’s Going to Drink”

With the exception of Catherine Case, every female character in the novel is brutalized. Kidnapping, torture, sexual assault, maiming and blackmail are all standard actions to which they are subject. The setting may warrant this, but since it is entirely fictional, it is a weak line of argument. One could suggest this viciousness is representative of the way women might be treated in such an extreme situation, but this theory would carry more weight if it were applied to the principle male characters as well.

Unlike the female characters when Angel is in danger or even injured he seems to come out the better for it. His scars make him even more masculine and attractive and only later do they impede his physical abilities in any meaningful way. Also, for all his talk of being the Devil, Angel is clearly shown to be someone with a sense of ethical standards unlike Julio or the Vet. He’s also the most magnanimous character, granting forgiveness to those who have betrayed him (309, 327). Angel’s saving of Maria alone and his reasons for doing it makes him one of the better acting individuals of the novel (220). As it stands, a reader looking for a misogynistic tone, even though it is almost certainly unintentional, will have little trouble finding evidence here.


The Water Knife is a strong novel from Bacigalupi. Even readers not normally interested in novels about climate change or science-fiction should find this novel both enjoyable and thought-provoking.


Bacigalupi, Paolo. The Water Knife. Vintage, 2015.

© 2016 Seth Tomko


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