Skip to content

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

May 24, 2010

Nailer’s world is bleak. He lives on the Gulf Coast, working on a light crew that salvages metal from wrecked ships. It’s difficult, demanding work, pays barely enough for Nailer to survive, but provides the best life he can hope for. Until, in the aftermath of a deadly storm, Nailer and his crew boss, Pima, find a freshly wrecked clipper ship.

The clipper ship holds more wealth than Nailer and Pima have ever seen before: silverware, china, gold rings still stuck on the swollen fingers of a girl. The rings won’t come off, and, believing the girl dead, Nailer is about to cut her fingers off when the girl blinks. She is still alive, and as she gains strength, she tells them that people will be searching for her.

The girl leaned forward, her face lit by the fire, her features suddenly cold. “If you hurt me, my father will come here and wipe you and yours off the face of the earth and feed your guts to the dogs.” She sat back. “It’s your choice: Get rich helping me, or die poor.” (p. 113)

But can Nailer trust Lucky Girl, as the girl with the gold rings was quickly named? And is she worth the risk? The clipper wreckage is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, while forgoing the wreckage and helping Lucky Girl will not only mean facing the dangers of Lucky Girl’s secrets, but the wrath of Nailer’s alcohol- and drug-addicted father, as well.

Nailer is the center of Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi’s debut YA novel. Bacigalupi, who recently won a Nebula Award for The Windup Girl, immediately immerses readers in the harshness of Nailer’s life, yet Nailer is not without hope and empathy. Nailer’s life takes a dangerous turn after the discovery of Lucky Girl, when what had already been a fast-paced, compelling story became even more thrilling. There are fights and chases and escapes, and through it all, Bacigalupi never loses sight of Nailer. He makes the reader care for Nailer, and this is partly what makes Ship Breaker so suspenseful and exciting.

The setting is also vividly and realistically depicted. Readers are given glimpses and hints of the larger world—in which oil is hard to come by, climate change has drowned cities, and genetically engineered half-men are belongings of the wealthy—but only when these details are relevant to the story. Despite this narrow focus, Ship Breaker’s dystopian post-apocalyptic setting is fully realized, the worldbuilding ingenious and frighteningly plausible. Altogether, Ship Breaker is a magnificent addition to dystopian literature and a fantastically readable book.

Book source: public library.

Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

* If you’re intrigued by Ship Breaker, do read Gwenda’s SBBT interview with Bacigalupi. It’s extremely interesting (doesn’t an answer like, “I think the other thing that was going on was that I’d been getting poked at by a lot of people in science fiction because I write such grim stories. The typical comment was along the lines of: ‘After I read a Bacigalupi story, I want to slit my wrists,’ which I’m actually quite proud of–but I also wanted to play with emotional notes other than despair and fear,” make you want to read the rest of the interview?) and will NOT spoil your reading of Ship Breaker.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 24, 2010 5:31 am

    I just read this book a couple weeks ago and though it is not my normal YA sub-genre, wow. I was blown away at how into the story I was. It was fantastic, even for those who are not heavy into the dystopian reads.

  2. May 24, 2010 11:50 pm

    I’ve heard good things about this one; I’m just reassured that this is an adult SF writer who managed to crossover effortlessly because from the sound of things, he doesn’t dumb things down for YA. I’m hopeful he’ll write a couple of others.

  3. May 25, 2010 12:35 pm

    Trisha, I loved this book! I agree that the worldbuilding is ingenious. It was one of the things I most liked about the story. It’s pretty grim and violent, but for the main characters anyway, there seems to be some hope by the end.

  4. May 25, 2010 7:26 pm

    Windy – Thanks for commenting! I’m glad to hear it has as much appeal to folks who don’t usually read dystopian fiction as I thought.

    Tanita (and Sheryl) – He doesn’t dumb things down AT ALL. Going back to what Sheryl said about the worldbuilding, this is one area in which the not-dumbing-down thing is especially relevant. There’s no infodump and we’re not spoonfed info about the world to give Nailer’s situation context, but pick up clues about it as we learn more about Nailer. As much as I want to know more about the rest of the world, it’s not necessary to the story. And Bacigalupi writes with such authority that even though we’re not told much about the world outside of Nailer it still seems obvious that he knows exactly what happened/is happening; he’s just not telling in this book.

    Sheryl – Yes! I was relieved by the hope, too. Did you read Gwenda’s interview with Bacigalupi? Because he touches on the hope issue there.

  5. June 1, 2010 5:28 am

    I just finished reading this and I really enjoyed it. You really don’t get much world building except for what is necessary for the story – which was an interesting choice. It worked though. And it was obvious that it wasn’t because the author didn’t know it, it was because it wasn’t integral to the story at hand. I felt like we’d be getting more in a sequel.

    I also really enjoyed the characters, the dialogue, really everything. I do hope that he doesn’t go too cliche in the sequel (i’m just assuming there’ll be one – i mean there has to be, right?!) I fear Lucky Girl could become a righteous do-gooder because of her experience on the lower end of things. I hope she stays as complex as everyone was in Ship Breaker. Some double-crossing would be welcome in my opinion.

    And Tool! I want to know more more more about Tool. What is his deal!

    This is getting my vote for inclusion in our Mock Printz. We’re meeting today to lock down a couple of titles.


  1. Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi | Regular Rumination
  2. Review: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi | Bart's Bookshelf
  3. A last (happy) look at 2010 « The YA YA YAs
  4. Quick YMA reactions « The YA YA YAs

join the discussion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: