YRCA 2013 Review: Ship Breaker

So, I just finished Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi and it was really, really good. I mean, I had heard lots of good things about it from blogs and all the awards that it was nominated for. And it won the Michael L. Printz Award from YALSA. But I was still surprised at how much I liked it.

This book is about Nailer, who is a ship breaker. He works on a light crew, scavenging small stuff from small places on the oil tankers that crashed or were abandoned on a beach near the Gulf of Mexico. The light and heavy crews are paid a pittance to risk their lives getting materials off these ships that can be recycled. Recycled materials are important, because things like copper, steel, and oil are scarce. The crews are very competitive with each other because they required to meet a quota everyday and Nailer’s dad is very ruthless. He has a reputation for being a drunk and druggie, and his particularly vicious with his son. Nailer and Pima, a childhood friend and crew-mate, are wandering after a big hurricane that shuts down operations for a few days. They discover a swank’s clipper ship that wrecked during the storm. This is the ultimate score for a ship breaker because the materials on board, like gold, silver, and computer parts, are especially rare. The only problem is that they have found a swank girl alive on the ship. Because they know that they wouldn’t be able to defend a claim on the wreck, they have two choices: they can get as many valuables as possible off the ship in a short period of time or they can save the girl. Nailer, unsure of his own reasons, insists on saving Nita, the girl. This is where his life changes and his adventure begins. Following Nita causes him to leave the beach where he has lived his whole life and changes his perspective and his fates. Nailer is not the only one affected though; Nita sees a whole world that she has never been exposed to in her privileged life.

At first, I found it interesting but was not quite sure what to make of it. Then the world slowly unraveled and opened up. It was done in such a slow way that worked so subtly with the story that it took me a while to realize that, unlike a lot of other post-apocolyptic novels, the experiences and life of the main character are not universal to all the characters of this world. Yes, things are rougher for everyone but Nailer’s life seems, at first, to imply that everyone but a few “swanks” are barely surviving but as he moves beyond the ship breaker’s beach and the wrecks, you realize that there does appear to be a middle class of sorts.

You can approach this book in three ways: you can take it as a commentary on climate change and class structure, you can just sit back and enjoy an adventure story in a fascinating world, or you can attempt to do both. I took the third option with a heavy emphasis on just enjoying the plot. I really enjoyed that this post-apocolyptic world was not caused by one particular event. It is hinted at that climate change over a number of years was the biggest cause and there are references to the melting of the polar ice caps and to super hurricanes that drowned cities.

Will this book win the Senior Division of the 2013 YRCA? I think it’s a strong contender but maybe I’m just biased because it’s my favourite Senior title so far. It’ll be interesting to see if the teens voting are as enthusiastic about this books as the critics and reviewers have been.

What I’m reading now: The Dark Side of the Sun (audiobook) by Terry Pratchet and Black Bird, Vol. 10 by Kanoko Sakurakoji.

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