Review of “Ship Breaker” by Paolo Bacigalupi

This combination YA dystopia and adventure story is a rip-roaring good read, as well as a sober look at a post-apocalyptic world resulting from environmental havoc that doesn’t sound far-fetched.

Nailer, the protagonist, is 15 or so (he isn’t sure) and is a ship breaker on a scavange gang. In brutal and dangerous work conditions, the crews take apart the huge iron vessels washed up near the formerly-inhabited Gulf coast. The materials are then sold to huge international companies, and the crews are granted subsistence (and survival) in return.

Nailer’s mother is dead, and his father, Richard Lopez, is a violent, amphetamine-addicted thug who beats him regularly. But note the beauty of this passage in which Nailer compares his father’s rages with the furious tempests that now regularly blow in from the ocean:

“…Nailer could tell that dangerous gears were turning now, fueled by the rattle of drugs and anger and whatever madness caused his father’s bouts of frenzied work and brutality. Underneath the man’s tattooed features a storm was brewing, full of undertows and crashing surf and water spouts, the deadly weather that buffeted Nailer every day as he tried to navigate the coastline of his father’s moods.”

Nailer’s salvation is another family – Pima, his crewmate, and her mother Sadna, who has healing skills. They provide the acceptance and refuge that Nailer lacks in his own life with his father. As Nailer realized:

“The blood bond was nothing. It was the people that mattered. If they covered your back, and you covered theirs, then maybe that was worth calling family. Everything else was just so much smoke and lies.”

Nailer and the other “Beach Rats” know they could never hope to bridge the chasm between rich and poor that defines the post-apolcalyptic world. But still, Nailer sees the clipper ships of the “swanks” in the distance and dreams about being on one someday. After a huge storm, one of them actually runs aground and washes up near their beach. Nailer and Pima check it for salvage and find a young girl, Nita, still alive among the wreckage. They call her Lucky Girl, and try to hide her from Nailer’s father and the others who will see her as a body they can sell for parts, but to no avail. Richard, aided by “half-men” – creatures engineered from a genetic mix of humans, tigers, hyenas, and dogs, catch the three and hold them captive.

The book then transitions from a bleak, dark tale into an adrenaline-fueled adventure as efforts to escape turn into a battle of wits and luck and good versus evil.


I loved the descriptive passages of the so-called Accelerated Age, with its rusting monoliths; desperate poor; rich struggling between greed and humanity; and nature still asserting itself in a way that recognized no difference between classes as it reclaimed what was hers:

“The great drowned city of New Orleans didn’t come all at once, it came in portions: the sagging backs of shacks ripped open by banyan trees and cypress. Crumbling edges of concrete and brick undermined by sinkholes. Kudzu-swamped clusters of old abandoned buildings shadowed under the loom of swamp trees.”

I also loved the multiculturalism of this book, in this near-future scenario in which survival skills take precedence over superficial characteristics. And I appreciated the realistic depiction of future political and economic hegemony as belonging to China and India, rather than the West.

And oh, an evil character with subtlety: how rare! How wonderful!

Evaluation: This is a terrific story with realistic world-building and nuanced characters you don’t often find in dystopias. Neither the good nor the evil characters are without shades of gray, and the changes they go through, the resourcefulness, compassion and courage they exhibit, and the lessons they learn make this book a rewarding and thought-provoking book for all ages. The “half-men” which have received canine genes for loyalty are particularly good characters, and I say that as someone who generally does not like deviations from realism. Bacigalupi’s visions stick to the possible, which makes them all the more fearsome and compelling.

Rating: 4.3/5

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2010


Michael L. Printz Award (2011)
Publishers Weekly’s Best Children’s Books of the Year for Fiction (2010)
Abraham Lincoln Award Nominee (2013)
Andre Norton Award Nominee for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy (2010)
National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature (2010)
Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book (2011)


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15 Responses to Review of “Ship Breaker” by Paolo Bacigalupi

  1. Nymeth says:

    I’ve been dying to get my hands on this since the Printz. Somehow it hadn’t quite made it onto my radar before then – which is certainly a reason to appreciate awards!

  2. Julie P. says:

    This one wasn’t one my radar either but it definitely sounds intriguing. Great review.

  3. bermudaonion says:

    I’m not a big fan of dystopian literature unless it rings true and it sounds like this one hits the mark on that. I’m jotting this title down because I love books that make me think.

  4. Marie says:

    I really need to read Bacigalupi. I got to meet him last year and had no idea who he was! Now he’s one of my top gotta-read authors.

  5. Richard says:

    Jill, I applaud the name of the thug father!

  6. i just googled paolo and found out that this book is up for a national book award. i thought with his name he might be foreign but the limited bio says he’s from colorado. i’m wondering if this book would work with my students. if it’s available on kindle, i’m going to check out a sample chapter and see. my YA kick is going strong…

  7. Trisha says:

    This one is glaring at me from the TBR shelves, but the freaking ARCs and review copies are judging me from right underneath it. 🙂

  8. Belle Wong says:

    I think I’d enjoy this one, even if it is dystopia!

  9. Staci says:

    This one may be a bit scary to read!!! I loved your thoughts on this story 😀

  10. Jenners says:

    Where do you find these books?!!!??? And I’m continually baffled by your rating system … 4.3?

  11. Alyce says:

    I tried to read Windup Girl by the same author and gave up after a few chapters. Have you read that one? I’m wondering how similar they are in style because I have wanted to read Ship Breaker, but have read good reviews of both books and really didn’t like Windup Girl.

  12. zibilee says:

    A lot of the things that you mention about this book in your review intrigue me, and though I haven’t ever heard of this book before, it’s one that I really want to add to my list after having read your thoughts. I love subtle villains, and these hybrid beings are most curious to me. Great review on this one. It sounds like a fantastic read!

  13. Aarti says:

    I really want to read Bacigalupi- I’ve heard great things about his books, particularly this one. Glad to know it’s “rip-roaring,” too- I LOVE that phrase 🙂

  14. Ti says:

    Sounds wonderful!! I could totally picture the setting in my mind just from the brief snippets you included here.

  15. Margot says:

    It may be hard to believe, given my book preferences, but I actually checked this book out from the library and started reading it. (I want to feature this award winner at my Quirky Girl blog.) I’m only in about 15 pages and I’m still not freaked out. – really!! It’s so well written and very interesting. I’m promising myself that I won’t become a lover of dystopian fiction but I will just enjoy this one.

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