Paolo Bacigalupi’s Tool of War, the third book in the Ship Breaker trilogy, following Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities, follows the augmented soldier Tool in his attempt to find and fight his creators. Tool’s journey has been a violent, angry one, and in this final book, we meet him as he is leading an army of child soldiers win the war in the semi-submerged cities along the Atlantic coast. Tool’s new pack have been helping him take control of the area, crushing the other warlords with just as much violence as they’ve inflicted over the years. Tool is suddenly faced with something he’s never known—relative peace, and a need for his leadership in rebuilding the drowned cities.
But Tool’s plans to create something new from the ruins are barely more than a thought when his creators make a massive, excessively violent attempt to neutralise him. The gods of war aren’t the ones Tool’s soldiers have been fighting on the ground; they are the ones who made weapons like him, the ones who sit safely far, far away but can still send down thunderbolts at will to destroy what they have already decided is not worth anything but death. Tool is almost killed, but his will to fight back is stronger than any weapon General Caroa and the corporation that made and owned Tool can hurl at him, and so begins a brutal fight to the finish between two forces that will never back down.
As he attempts to find his makers, Tool crosses paths again with friends from his past: Mahlia and her rag tag gang of “war maggots” from The Drowned Cities are back, as are Nailer and Nita from Ship Breaker, tying the narrative of Tool of War neatly to the previous two books. It’s a fun element to this third book—seeing characters previously enjoyed return as stronger, older and more developed people. The people who have mattered in Tool’s life are brought back to help him reach his own personal vendetta, and in doing so, attempt to change the world, if only just a little, if only for just a while. The narrative switches perspective between the characters, which allows the reader to see Tool’s story from a different perspective, and to question who or what he is—half human, half beast, warlord or soldier, weapon or protector.
Bacigalupi has been on point with choosing the half-man, half-monster augmented solider Tool as the one character to tether the Ship Breaker trilogy to, because as much as the young adult characters of this series have been engaging, Tool has been the most complicated and so the most interesting. He isn’t the easiest to like, of course, but easy to empathise with, which makes him all the more provocative. Bacigalupi hasn’t bothered to make his characters likeable—that’s not necessary when they are as raw as Tool, who is violent without fail, vicious and even unkind at times. Even to Nailer and Mahlia, who think of him as a friend, Tool has grown into something more, something frightening and volatile: “Now he seemed something else entirely. Not friend or ally. Something primal and unnerving. A nightmare out of humanity’s primeval past, a monster of old, a creature re-emerged from the darkest myths of protohumans, when jungles had never been razed, and when apes still cowered from darkness and struggled to master fire. A monster with its won interests and agenda.”
In Tool of War, we are dealing with a different Tool than before, one who is starting to fight those instincts that have so far held him from destroying those who created him as a weapon of unstoppable death and destruction. He is now fighting his urger to be submissive when faced with employees of the Mercier Corporation—something absolutely unthinkable to his owners. Can you fight your genes and take back the power that was never ever allowed to you, the agency that you were deemed unfit to have? To find who he truly is within the twisted system in which he exists, Tool must find a way to fight his gods, instead of fighting for them. “Are we salves to do our masters’ bidding?” asks Tool of his pack. “Whose wars do we fight?
Tool was genetically modified, raised and trained to never fight the submission impulses built into him. He is rendered incapable of biting the hands that fed him, as it were, just as Emiko, the titular character of The Windup Girl, is incapable of fighting the sexual reactions built into her. Both are then forced to deal with their own self hatred, their disgust at their inability to fight their “nature.” It is a complicated morality Bacigalupi attempts to explore, as always, and as before, he forces his readers to think about uncomfortable situations and ideas.
The Ship Breaker series is a dark, brutal set of stories. Set in a world utterly torn apart by climate change, it’s either kill or be killed, whether by gang warfare or corporate greed or politically and economically controlled violence. These stories are violent, bloody and vicious—both physically as well as emotionally. The characters struggle not just with their environments, but also with who they are, what they are. Of course the main reason these stories are so harsh is because they’re the truth—there’s sadly nothing far fetched about child soldiers or child labour, nothing too unbelievable about genetic modification or augmented strength or drone controlled death from above or what certain governments easily write off as “collateral damage.” A great many valid issues are raised in this book—slavery, oppression, determinism, corporate greed, and the ultimate cost of war—not all of them are explored deeply or sorted, because ultimately it isn’t the writer’s job to provide readers with answers, but to ask the important questions that begin a conversation and a deeper thought process. That Bacigalupi does with aplomb.
Tool of War is available now from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.