The Water Knife is basically a story of the people of the American southwest and what happens to them when water starts drying up, droughts begin taking over, and the scramble liquid becomes all-encompassing. The "water knife" of the title is not an actual knife, but the main character, Angel. He is a water knife in the sense that he "cuts" water; that is, he works for a woman named Catherine Case, known as the Queen of the Colorado River, who enforces the water rights of Las Vegas vehemently. Angel is one of her posse who goes out and takes down anyone who's trying to siphon Case's water away, cutting off the flow by any means necessary and leaving people and places to die in his wake. He is very, very good at what he does, which makes him the perfect candidate for a mission Case wants completed: find out what's happening with a rumored score in Arizona, and if there are water rights up for grabs, grab them.
Our other two main characters are Lucy and Maria, who live in Phoenix--Angel's destination. Phoenix is slowly being devoured by the desert, dust storms coming more frequently and lasting longer, the water only for the very wealthy; those who aren't wealthy are basically living off the mercy of the Red Cross. Everyone with sense and ability is getting out, but getting out is hard because the other states have closed their borders to refugees from the waterless states. Maria is originally from Texas, which has been completely destroyed by natural disasters, and she wants to leave Arizona, too, but can't afford a "coyote" to smuggle her across the border into another state. She and her friend Sarah are basically doing all they can just to stay afloat--Sarah by working as a prostitute, Maria by selling water from Red Cross pumps at hiked-up prices at a construction site. Lucy, on the other hand, can leave whenever she wants; she's not from Arizon, but has moved there to further her career as a journalist and document Phoenix's descent, which she does quite faithfully via the hashtag #PhoneixDownTheTubes. But Lucy gets more than she bargained for when one of her friends, who'd spent recent days talking about a big score and a way to California, turns up dead. Furious, Lucy aims her pen at everyone she's resisted targeting for so long, completely disregarding her own safety in a city that has basically become a dog-eat-dog world.
As Angel searches for water rights and Lucy searches for the truth, their paths and that of Maria begin to weave in and out of each other. It's an extremely dangerous place, Bacigalupi's Phoenix, People get shown, blown up, fed to hyenas, and all sorts of other unpleasant things. This is a very violent book; I'd really say it's not for the faint-of-heart. There is also an "attraction" plotline, which I hesitate to call a real romance because the characters like each other, are intrigued by each other, and are definitely attracted to each other, but they're still also perfectly willing to stab each other in the back if necessary, and neither of them is really sure what their involvement is. "Romance" typically implies some sort of resolution, which this didn't have and I don't think will have, given that, to my knowledge, there's not going to a Water Knife #2.
The path of this book is twisty and turning, with things spiraling in around each other but everything still interlocking quite well. I didn't see any gaping plotholes; Bacigalupi's world seems very tight. This is, however, a book that lacks a lot of resolution. There's no world-saving going on here, so if you're the type of person who likes to leave a book with everything wrapped up in a neat little package, this is not for you. It's definitely a "it's the journey, not the destination" that counts type of book. In the end, the world (or at least the American southwest) is still pretty much screwed, but I'd come to care about the characters and have hope for their individual futures more than I did for the world at large. It was a type of ending that, yes, would suck if it were reality (which it very well could become; that is the scary part about books like this) but I think fit the narrative perfectly. It also read, to me, as basically a prequel to Dust by Hugh Howey. Put together, I think the two are a really good sci-fi story about what might happen when we start running out of water. It is not, however, a book that goes along with the misleadingly-titled (but lovely) What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.
An excellent book, but a violent one and one that is scary in its foreboding of a likely reality. Sensitive readers be warned!
4.5 stars out of 5.