Pages: 326 (hardcover)
Published: May 2010 by Little, Brown
Recommended for: dystopia fans
Set initially in a future shanty town in America's Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being dissembled for parts by a rag tag group of workers, we meet Nailer, a teenage boy working the light crew, searching for copper wiring to make quota and live another day. The harsh realities of this life, from his abusive father, to his hand to mouth existence, echo the worst poverty in the present day third world. When an accident leads Nailer to discover an exquisite clipper ship beached during a recent hurricane, and the lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl, Nailer finds himself at a crossroads. Should he strip the ship and live a life of relative wealth, or rescue the girl, Nita, at great risk to himself and hope she'll lead him to a better life? This is a novel that illuminates a world where oil has been replaced by necessity, and where the gap between the haves and have-nots is now an abyss. Yet amidst the shadows of degradation, hope lies ahead.
This is one of the best dystopias I've read in a long time. It has a fast-paced, instantly intriguing feel which reminded me of The Hunger Games, masterpiece of that genre, except that Ship Breaker is definitely more of a 'guy's book' in some ways. The synopsis catches the feel of the book perfectly, so I won't do my usual long-winded 're-summarizing and setting the scene' thing.
The world in which Nailer-- who's young even for a YA protagonist-- lives is a harsh one, a coastline wrecked by tides and global warming, where it's difficult just to get by and many resort to terrible means in order to survive. Global warming is a common reason given for a dystopian future and I sometimes find it a little redundant after reading like, thirty books whose authors all felt it would be a good idea to stick that 'this could be our planet's future if we don't shape up' theme in, but I liked the way Paolo Bacigalupi handled it and didn't mind a bit. The ship breakers are impoverished scavengers who systematically take apart ships which wash up on the shore of their ragged coastline after storms crash them. I felt immediately absorbed into Nailer's world and that of his loyal (and not so loyal) crew members. Treachery and life-threatening situations run amok on the pages of this thrilling novel, and there wasn't a single character who didn't feel real enough to bleed.
I particularly liked Nita, the wealthy 'swank' girl who Nailer rescues from her ship against the wishes of his crew, who would just as soon see her drown. The romance between them is cute-- they're like fourteen, so...-- and hopeful, but it isn't a big part of the story, nor does it need to be. Richard Lopez is one of the most real and truly frightening villains I've read about, not least because he's Nailer's father, an addict who has abused him ever since the long-ago death of Nailer's mother. I'm not giving away spoilers, but the showdown between them was seriously cooler than when Skywalker faced Darth Vader (oops, my nerd is showing again;). This book might make a very good movie, actually.
The book also takes a stab at asking questions about the nature of humanity-- in the future, there are mutant half-men who are basically like human-animal crosses who serve one human for the entirety of their life. The exception to this rule seems to be Tool, a mysterious half-man who accompanies Nailer and Nita when they flee to the now-ruined city of New Orleans to escape Nailer's father. Tool was an interesting character, and like everyone in the novel, neither decisively good or bad. I think too many books have characters who don't blur that line the way that real people do, and Ship Breaker should be applauded for doing a marvelous job of that.
On a side note, this book won the 2011 Printz Award. Printz books always turn out to be some of the absolute best-- I wish I had room on my to-read list to read every single one of the Printz books from the last few years. Anyway, happy reading to you all!!
Cover: 4/5 (it has a cool rustic look which is better in person)
Plot: 5/5Overall Rating: 5/5