Saturday, April 9, 2011

Book Review: The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

(This is a repost of my review that appeared on SF Signal recently - reposted here for posterity)

Paperback: 300 pages
Publisher: Night Shade Books (April 20, 2010)
ISBN-10: 1597801585
ISBN-13: 978-1597801584

This book springs into...Action? The Plot? Character? No, not really any of those.

This is a hard book to figure.

On the surface it seems to have it all: Distinct characters all working towards their own ends, sometimes in conflict, sometimes in harmony. You don’t know what will happen as a reader, only that something big is coming. The world is unique and plays with some of the big topics of the day.

The Windup Girl takes place in a dystopic future Thailand, where the world is beset upon by plague and famine—a result of massive corporate greed and folly. The oceans have risen and many of the world’s greatest cities are under water. Petroleum fuels are scarce and alternative energy abounds. The fruits and mistakes of genetic manipulations are everywhere. It is a difficult place to live for those not at the top.

In fact a lot of the book is spent explaining all of this and I think if anything, the book’s focus is on setting. The ideas and the technology of the day are paramount. While it makes for a very real world—authentic to the Eastern culture of its location—it doesn’t necessarily make for an entertaining read. I’m sure some purists might call me something akin to illiterate for not finding it incredibly engaging, but I am not one that lives solely for the idea of a story. I want characters to rule, and that’s me.

Who is the main character and protagonist? Is it Emiko? Or perhaps Anderson? Hock Seng? Jaidee? Kanya? Who? And who is the main antagonist? I honestly have trouble deciding.

If the most sympathetic points to a main character, then you’d go with Emiko or Hock Seng, until half-way through when Hock Seng loses his pity edge and Emiko takes over...until she realizes her potential and well, no more pity.

In a recent blog post I pointed out one difficulty of the novel for me was the use of foreign terms. I love a book that strives for an authentic feel, but it is a fine line to walk between imbuing the flavor of another culture or time or language and overkill—where the book pushes the reader away with its unfamiliarity. And, at least with language, I think Bacigalupi stepped over that line, for me.

With setting as key, I think the plotting also suffers. A good story is more than just a reporting of a series of events. While there is structure here and each character is rife with their own agenda, it never becomes something special.

I want to be entertained, sucked into the story and mesmerized by the plight of its characters. The Windup Girl did not do that for me. I think of it along the lines of this: In real life, every event does not necessarily happen for a reason or affect you in a profound way. However in a book, I think it should.

Kanya may have been the hidden heart of this novel, torn in multiple directions by the circumstances that shaped her young life, but the focus didn’t fall on her until halfway through. Her mentor overshadowed her and his potentially great story ended far too soon.

I’ll say one thing for sure: Bacigalupi fooled me and did so consistently. I was never able to figure out for sure what would happen next, but neither was I profoundly moved each time as I was by the esteemed George R.R. Martin.

Though it may not have compelled me, it was interesting in its own way: well done. For that I give it three kink-spring powered stars.

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