Tag Archives: Postapocalyptic

On Lee Kelly’s “City of Savages”

10 Mar

City of Savages [2015] by Lee Kelly (Photo from "Goodreads")

City of Savages [2015] by Lee Kelly (Photo from “Goodreads“)

Katniss Everdeen is a household name and the Divergent film adaptations made a young star out of Shailene Woodley, all thanks to a rising subgenre among young adult readership. New author and resident New Yorker Lee Kelly is jumping aboard late on the post-apocalyptic YA funtimes wagon, but her debut novel City of Savages might be one of the better installations of this popular topic. (I’m not sure what it says about our youth today that this depressing, morbid genre is all the rage, but at least we’re past the “vampire-werewolf-love-triangle” genre, so I can’t complain.) Despite a few discrepancies in logic and some predictability in the plot, City of Savages tells a fantastic story about the grey areas between good and evil, and the strength of bonds between loved ones.

Two decades after World War III decimated New York City, sisters Skyler and Phoenix navigate the  wasteland of Manhattan with their mother Sarah. The entire island is a massive POW camp, regulated by the loose and distant hand of the Red Allies. The Miller family has the freedom to spend the warm summer months hunting wild peacocks and squirrels for their dinners and camping out in an abandoned penthouse overlooking Battery Park.

It's hard to imagine Manhattan devoid of its constant, urban roar. Empty of its residents, the island is one long, concrete tomb. (Photo by "Elizabeth Haslam")

It’s hard to imagine Manhattan devoid of its constant, urban roar. Empty of its residents, the island is one long, concrete tomb. (Photo from “Elizabeth Haslam“)

In the winter, the three women seek shelter in Central Park under the harsh but protective hand of the prison warden Rolladin. Rolladin is herself a prisoner, but as the Red Allies take less and less of an interest in the few hundred surviving residents of Manhattan, Rolladin assumes more and more power. She and her “overlords” keep residents in line and enforce strict schedules of manual labor to help the tight community survive.

The younger sister Phoenix, or “Phee,” seems to fit in with the survivor-mode lifestyle of the island, but her older sister Skyler immerses herself in books and the remnants of a previous culture, one where people weren’t forced to the limits of humanity and beyond to stay alive. Sky dreams of another world, a better one the the savage hierarchy enforced by the heartless Rolladin. Phee’s fighting skills and spunk earns her Rolladin’s attention, though, and the distance between sisters grows. When the girls discover their mother’s old journal, they steal chances to read it whenever they can, careful to keep it hidden from their secretive mother, and begin to unravel the truth of their ruined world and deeper, family secrets–secrets that threaten to tear sister from sister and child from mother. The final straw is the arrival of handful of strangers with strange accents–four men who claim they sailed in from the outside and come bearing news. The girls commit an act of treason to help the strangers evade the wrath of Rolladin, but their escape leads them through the subway tunnels, and the danger awaiting them there could be worse than anything Rolladin could cook up.

I love subway tunnels. I love the crush of human bodies, I love the buskers, and I love the comforting, earthy smell. But you bet your ass I wouldn't love them if they were filled with Lee Kelly's "feeders." (Photo by "Genial 23")

I love subway tunnels. I love the crush of human bodies, I love the buskers, and I love the comforting, earthy smell. But you can bet your rosy bottom I wouldn’t love them if they were filled with Lee Kelly’s “feeders.” (Photo from “Genial 23“)

The plot that ensues from there is nothing new in the literary world: familial bonds are tested by distrust, a little love triangle forms, things aren’t what they seem, conflict, climax, resolution. Kelly doesn’t stretch for the unfamiliar either in story line or setting, though that doesn’t stop her from creating a perfectly entertaining novel, thanks to the several fresh elements she uses throughout the book. Kelly creates well-paced, textured narrative by alternating chapters of the cocky, angst-ridden voice of Phoenix; the self-doubting, speculative voice of Skyler; and Sarah Miller’s journal, which slowly reveals the secrets of her past. The layers of the three narrative styles balances our slowly growing understanding of the past with the quickly moving actions of the characters’ present. Kelly also examines different forms of dictatorships: Rolladin’s power of brute force and rigid hierarchy, and the more subversive, covert power of theocracy. I have to believe that, were she not writing a young adult book, Kelly would have given the exploration of these methods a little more page time and maybe cut down on the time her two protagonists spend mooning over boys.

Phee and Skyler themselves are little better than formulaic female protagonists, representing two polar archetypes: the tough girl who cracks jokes and doesn’t care what people think about her, and the quiet, bookish one who doesn’t really know how beautiful she is. I appreciate the equal representation here, and I think young readers will benefit from knowing there’s no single way to be the kick-ass hero of the story. In fact, you could have two kick-ass heroes and they can be complete opposites of each other. But the real show-stealers here are the young Sarah Miller of the journal entries and the twisted, cold-hearted Rolladin, who comes with secrets of her own. Rolladin takes the crown when it comes to compelling charcters. She is a villain who inspires some wonderfully conflicted feelings because of what she represents: the cautionary tale of what happens when obsessive love turns into something ugly.

Through all the sloppy logic and predictability, City of Savages is a fine way to spend a few hours of your life and a stellar debut by an exciting new author on the young adult scene. You may think the post-apocalyptic genre is overdone and as saturated as a pre-teen’s Instagram stream, but this story of sisters, war, and tragic family secrets was nothing but a joy to read.

“I guess who needs a voice of reason when you have a partner in crime?”

And lord help the sister

And lord help the sister who comes between me and my man.

Read It: Whether you’re an angsty teen looking for some new grey-scale, post-apocalyptic morbidity to gobble down or you’re a full-blown adult who just needs a little escapism that’s easy on the literary interpretation faculties, you will find City of Savages a pleasure to read. Lee Kelly succeeds at crafting an entertaining story in complex yet relatable landscape. The novel also contains a fun, queer subplot, so be on the look out!

Don’t Read It: All you sticklers out there–you critics of highly predictable plots or surveyors of plot holes–be warned. This is not the book for you. I have high hopes, though, since this is Kelly’s first novel, and she’s already planning another; these things will only improve! Some plot elements may be too intense for readers under 18. Not only are the scenes of physical brutality quite frequent, but themes of cannibalism and sexual abuse take large roles in this darkened setting. If you are a parent looking for something acceptable for your young one to read, make a note: if you wouldn’t let your child watch The Walking Dead then you may want to think twice before buying or checking out City of Savages.

Similar Books: Of course I’m going to tell you to go read Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games for another book about a young female lead who is beyond capable in a depressing future America, but I hope to God you have already done that. You probably haven’t read the lovely novella Wild Girls by Ursula K. Le Guin, and I urge you to jump on that with both feet. Wild Girls is a short fantasy about two sisters navigating a world of slavery and harsh class structure. Le Guin’s writing blows me away every time I read it, and this short but powerful piece will convert you if you aren’t already an acolyte.

Lee Kelly (Photo from "Goodreads")

Lee Kelly (Photo from “Goodreads“)

On Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Windup Girl”

13 Jan
The Windup Girl (2009) by Paolo Bacigalupi won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, among many others.

The Windup Girl (2009) by Paolo Bacigalupi won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, among many others.

What better way to start the new year than with a little science fiction escapism? That was my train of thought until I ended up in the beautifully crafted but horrifyingly and perfectly imaginable post-apocalyptic world of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. There’s absolutely no point in escaping a bleak 2015 economy and frightening American race riots if the alternative is a tattered world where the masses live in utter poverty, clawing their way from calorie to calorie to keep from starving, and mega-corporations buy their respective ways into the upper echelons of national governments. Come to think of it, those two worlds seem eerily similar. Out of the frying pan, into the sci-fi political commentary. It seems Bacigalupi is onto something with this entertaining, award-winning 2009 novel.

The world of The Windup Girl is ravaged by the folly of genetic tampering, or “genehacking,” and the lethal repercussions of globalization. Massive “calorie companies” flooded the world with a wave of exported food and biological goods, but this was soon followed by a monsoon of viruses, plagues, and epidemics that fractured the world into broken governments and nearly sent the world back to the Dark Ages. Bacigalupi does an admirable job making readers sink under the heavy heat of Bangkok and gag on the odor of gutters filled with human waste and rotting fruit. The oppression of this new urban landscape is felt in the crush of the author’s prose, and makes reading Bacigalupi a comprehensive experience.

Anderson Lake, a calorie man with AgriGen, slogs his way through this fragrant, darkened Bangkok in a covert mission to find agriculture untouched by deadly “blister rust” or devoured by invasive beetles. Anderson’s corporate agenda winds him up in the local political battle between the global-thinking Trade Ministry and the isolationist Environment Ministry, as well as the dangerous squabbling of slum lords and militant faction leaders.

Bacigalupi's Bangkok is vastly different than the bright, bustling modern version we're familiar with. Replace all the cars with fascist government officials and all the lights with infectious diseases.

Bacigalupi’s Bangkok is vastly different than the bright, bustling modern version we’re familiar with. Replace all the cars with fascist government officials and all the lights with infectious diseases.

Plans are truly upset when Anderson falls in love with a taboo New Person named Emiko–a genehacked woman who was design by scientist to please men in all ways, shapes, and forms. New People, or “windups” as they are derrogatorily called, are feared and loathed by the general population as abominations, but they make a nice novelty attraction in Bangkok’s underground. Emiko is owned by a club that caters to hypocritical white shirts who hunt windups by day and watch them violated on seedy stages at night.

While Emiko owns the honor of being the title character, she features infrequently on the actual pages. Her situation as the uncanny valley aspect of the this future world adds a necessary complication to an otherwise average political thriller, but Emiko is never fully realized as a character. The role paved out for her is two-dimensional and tired: she is the submissive slave who is pushed too far and finds out she has the power to free herself; she is trapped in a cocoon and finally finds out she can become a beautiful butterfly; and when the rape scenes come around, she is the dominated, eroticized damsel in the distress, waiting for a white knight to tell her about her potential.


Anderson Lake chases down the genetic origination of the ngaw fruit (rambutan), but it isn’t Anderson who ends ups unraveling the mystery of Thailand’s genetic success.

If this were a film, it would miserably fail the Bechdel test. And when I say, “miserably fail,” I mean it takes the Bechdel test behind the chemical shed and shoots it in the head. Not only do the female characters of TWG think and talk only about men in the few passages in which they feature, but the few times a woman interacts meaningfully with another woman is when a female colleague rapes Emiko on the stage of a club for the entertainment of their patrons. The first positive (and when I say, “positive,” all I mean is, “not rape”) interaction between two named female characters doesn’t show up until 60% through the book.

The most compelling characters of TWG are the supporting cast members and their subplots, which mostly feel severed from the main body of the plot. Hock Seng, Anderson’s Chinese immigrant assistant, battles the virulent racism in the city while trying to rebuild his life after having witnessed the brutal massacre of all his children and grandchildren. Hock’s character development is a novella of its own.

Almost the entire final third of the book is dedicated to another supporting character, Lieutenant Kanya. Kanya is an orphan-turned-white shirt who works under the tutelage of Captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, the Tiger of Bangkok, the most feared officer of the Ministry and the greatest enemy to Trade and globalization. Kanya’s stoic self-sufficiency and her conflicted conscience make her the most interesting and the most human character of the novel. In a world where there are no heroes, only villains, Kanya stands firmly in limbo and is one of the few characters faced with making formative decisions.

I imagined Kanya to be a little like Kuvira from Avatar: The Legend of Korra--a pre-warlord Kuvira who smiles way less and really likes the color white.

I imagined Kanya to be a little like Kuvira from Avatar: The Legend of Korra–ferocious, lethally competent, and filled with idealistic conviction.

Since The Windup Girl was Bacigalupi’s first departure from the short story form, it’s understandable how the subplots, smaller stories, and side characters felt so vivid and compelling while the primary characters feel flat in a meandering plot. It’s those fascinating subplots and side characters–along with the author’s immersive descriptions–that makes this novel worth reading.

Read It: If your version of sci-fi escapism is a metaphorical punch to the gut, grab a copy of TWG. This novel won’t be your Asimovian philosophical exercise or Herbertian political saga. It’s an exciting mystery in an exciting setting that leads a reader through a series of tragic events toward a larger, more tragic event. If that isn’t enough to entice you to read this, then I have four words for you: genetically modified working girl. No, but really, the believable vision with which Bacigalupi writes and the well-paced plot makes The Windup Girl a fun read.

Don’t Read It: You may want to avoid The Windup Girl if you’re uncomfortable reading rape. I won’t lie: rape plays a large part of plot, and Bacigalupi doesn’t shy away from graphic details. I thought the scenes were gratuitous and distracting from a relatively compelling plot, and not everyone wants to read this level of trauma in what would otherwise be an entertaining novel.

Similar Books: Three books come to mind when reading a science fiction novel about our world’s bleak and entirely possible future: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which a mutation has castrated the world, and women are objectified for the sake of survival; Mira Grant’s Parasite, a new and award-nominated novel about the mega-corporations ruining life for people with their god complexes and genetic tampering; and Chaeng-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, which shares some prose styles with Bacigalupi’s TWG. Now go forth with these fun reads, and join me in sobbing for the doomed future of humanity!

Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi is a prolific writer of sci-fi and suspense. The first book of his I read was the young adult novel Ship Breaker.