The Water Knife

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The Water Knife
Book cover of The Water Knife.jpg
AuthorPaolo Bacigalupi
Cover artistOliver Munday[1]
CountryUnited States
PublisherAlfred A. Knopf
Publication date
26 May 2015
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)

The Water Knife is a 2015 science fiction novel by Paolo Bacigalupi. It is Bacigalupi's sixth novel, and is based on his short story, The Tamarisk Hunters; first published in the environmental journal High Country News. It takes place in the near future, where drought brought on by climate change has devastated the Southwestern United States.[3]


Set at an undetermined point in the near future, the American Southwest has been ravaged by drought, brought on by rising heat and extreme water shortages due to the debilitating effects of climate change. The Colorado River and its tributaries, which are an essential source of water for the region, has decreased to a mere trickle. In Nevada, Arizona, and California, corrupt business magnates control the severely depleted water supply, and routinely battle in armed conflicts for dwindling portions of the river.

Angel Velasquez, a detective, assassin and spy “cuts” water for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, controlled by his boss Catherine Case. Angel's job, as a "water knife", is to infiltrate and sabotage the water supplies of competing states, and to make sure that Case can keep her luxuriant arcology developments thriving in Las Vegas. Case wants to ensure that the rich stay wet, while the poor get nothing but dust.

When reports of a game-changing water source arise in Phoenix, Angel is sent south to investigate in his customized Tesla. Upon arriving in the blistering heat of Arizona, he encounters Lucy Monroe, an award winning journalist harboring her own agenda and secrets, and Maria Villarosa, a young refugee from Texas, surviving on her instincts and shrewdness. The three find themselves being manipulated in a corrupt game, larger and dirtier than any of them could have ever imagined.

Angel soon discovers that California is trying to monopolize the tiny current of the river, and with Phoenix on the verge of collapsing into chaos and violence, the bodies begin to stack up. As time starts to run out for the three, they discover their only hope for survival rests in one another hands. But when water is such a precious commodity in the desert region, and where partnerships can change in the blink of an eye, the only thing for certain is that someone will have to bleed if anyone hopes to drink.

Central characters[edit]

  • Angel Velasquez was born in Mexico and fled the country with his father after gang members murdered his mother and sister. After being released from prison by Catherine Case, Angel must now work for her as a "water knife"; a hired henchman, assassin and spy who sneaks into the water boards of Nevada’s rival states, California and Arizona, sabotaging and destroying their water supplies.
  • Lucy Monroe is a Pulitzer winning journalist who has stayed in Phoenix longer than she intended to, making a dangerous living reporting on the water wars. She can’t seem to abandon the chaos that surrounds her, hoping for that one big story. She knows far more about Phoenix's water secrets than she admits.
  • Maria Villarosa is a young Texas refugee and orphan, doing her best to survive just one more day. She is trying to get enough money together to leave the drought stricken region, and has dreams of escaping to the north where water still falls from the sky.

Major themes[edit]

Major themes include: water shortage and drought, climate change, corporate greed, social hierarchy, refugee crises and fabricated arcologies.[4][5]


Hugo Award winner Jason Heller said "Bacigalupi plays on a grand scale, but he does so with a keen eye for detail, from the designer dust masks worn by the rich to the construction printers used on an industrial scale (like giant 3-D printers), for the building of Southern Nevada Water Authority super resorts. His big triumph, though, is never forgetting that The Water Knife is a thriller at its pounding heart. Even amid reams of deeply researched information about the economy, geology, history and politics of water rights and usage in the United States, he keeps the plot taut and the dialogue slashing".[6]

In his review for The Washington Post, Héctor Tobar writes that "Bacigalupi is a grim, efficient and polished narrator" and creates a "twisted fictional landscape" that is a "vision of the near-future that borrows heavily from the strangeness and conflicts of the present". Tobar also states that some of the inventions used in the novel reek of stereotypes: "Mexico, for example, has devolved into a series of political entities called the Cartel States...but a powerful journalist named Lucy Monroe and a refugee from Texas named María Villarosa provide feminine wiles and a much-needed antidote to the book’s relentless bursts of testosterone-driven prose". Overall, Tobar suggests that fans of Bacigalupi's previous novel, The Windup Girl, will surely "enjoy losing themselves in these nearly 400 pages of climate sci-fi, or cli-fi, as it’s now called".[7]

The Denver Post called the novel a "blockbuster" writing that the characters in the book are "dragged together by fate, make bargains with each other and with themselves, and sometimes manage to rise to the level of anti-hero...there’s a little more techno-jargon, there are explosions and helicopters, breathless action and genuine suspense...this is a rich and, yes, gritty world from a smart author who knows the American Southwest well and knows readers better".[8]

Denise Hamilton postulated that the book brought to mind the movie Chinatown, saying that while "one is set in the past and the other in a dystopian future, both are neo-noir tales with jaded antiheroes and ruthless kingpins who wield water as lethal weapons to control life - and mete out death". Hamilton further opines that "Bacigalupi's use of water as sacred currency" evokes the novel Dune and the "violence and slang" may also bring to mind the film, A Clockwork Orange. Still though, Hamilton argues that the book is not a pastiche either; "Bacigalupi weaves an engrossing tale all his own, crackling with edgy style...and he makes water politics sexy, laying down the jargon and technical details early, then hurrying back to the action-filled streets...the ultimate villains here aren't the hired assassins or lowly water engineers but the faceless corporate owners who play God, deciding if entire regions live or die".[3]


  1. ^ Bacigalupi, Paolo (2015). The Water Knife. Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-385-35287-1.
  2. ^ "The Water Knife". WorldCat.
  3. ^ a b Hamilton, Denise (21 May 2015). "Review Amid a real drought, thriller 'Water Knife' cuts to the quick". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 19 July 2015.
  4. ^ "The Water Knife Themes and Motifs". BookRags. Water and Drought
  5. ^ "The Water Knife Summary". SuperSummary.
  6. ^ Heller, Jason (28 May 2015). "'The Water Knife' Cuts Deep". NPR. Retrieved 19 July 2015.
  7. ^ Tobar, Héctor (28 May 2015). "Imagining a thirsty future in Paolo Bacigalupi's 'The Water Knife'". The Washington Post. Retrieved 19 July 2015.
  8. ^ Burdick, Dave (5 June 2015). "Book review: "The Water Knife," by Paolo Bacigalupi". The Denver Post. Retrieved 19 July 2015.

External links[edit]