The Water Knife is compelling mostly in its premise: the American southwest — featuring primarily California, Arizona, Nevada, and southern Colorado — is basically bone dry. To sustain their urban populations, these states have employed muscle to go on and off the book and secure water rights, which are primarily proprietary channels drawing from the low but still flowing Colorado River. In the wake of decades of sustained drought, those cities and states that haven’t come out on top of the pile are dystopian wastelands. Texas as a geopolitical state has essentially collapsed, sending millions of refugees into surrounding states, only as long as those states are willing to accommodate them. Some of the more ruthless states and cities employ paramilitary troops both to keep the refugees on the other side of the border by any means necessary, and to monitor the steady, uninhibited supply of water from the River.
Enter the titular water knives, in particular Angel, who works for Catherine Case out of Vegas. Case is a developer who oversees a series of self-contained, sustainable, fully-hydrated oases where only the rich and privileged are permitted to reside. Angel is one of many mercenaries in her employ, and to start off the novel we get a scene to establish his credentials: his team blows up the water supply to an entire town because they may have been sourcing from one of Vegas’ streams. Impressed with that work, Case then sends Angel down to Phoenix, because there’s apparently something rotten down there and she wants him to get to the bottom of it.
In Phoenix, we meet Maria and Lucy. Maria is a Texas native who made it into Arizona before they got better at keeping refugees out, but there is no love lost between her and native Zoners, as they’re called. Lucy is an East Coast expat journalist whose work skirts the line between gratuitous “collapse porn” and more prestigious pieces for national publications. Through both of their connections — Lucy’s on the higher end and Maria’s on the lower — they find themselves caught up in the very same scandal that Angel is coming down from Vegas to investigate. And so sets the stage for their tangled web!
The world-building, fast pace, and technical detail saved The Water Knife from being an otherwise rote, formulaic noir with disappointingly two-dimensional characters. The only player with any grit and development was Maria, and her arc had me actually gasp and chuckle, “Oh well done, you!” at the end. By contrast, Angel and Lucy offer little: Lucy is almost completely fixed throughout as a hardened femme fatale and Angel is just the poor sap whose inner gooey, vulnerable center is exposed through his attraction to her. Similarly, the plot proceeds as expected for a mystery in this vein; it’s one step forward, two steps back, danger here, violence there, throw in some dubiously consensual sex and you’ve got yourself a story! But I won’t deny that Bacigalupi keeps everything moving at a good clip, so I never had too long to roll my eyes before I was onto the next vital moment. Likewise, the thought put into the exact operations and infrastructure behind keeping the water flowing was inventive, clever, and grounded in reality. It’s these descriptions that save the book from being simply soft and lurid, because underneath the provocative material there is a resigned pragmatism regarding what we’re probably looking forward to if we can’t solve our current water issues in the region.
Is The Water Knife a can’t miss book for those interested in the subject of the drought? Maybe, but probably not. I suspect that honor goes to the oft-namedropped Cadillac Desert.