Action, plot, an interesting world... deeper questions of what makes family and what constitutes loyalty... oh man. I am totally hoping there is a second book.
But let's take a step back for a moment. What is this book? It is the first YA book from up-and-coming SF writer Bacigalupi, who has previously won praise for his short stories written for adults. It's about Nailer, a teenage boy who works stripping beached cargo ships of their precious metals: copper, aluminum, stainless steel. Although Nailer's world is desperately poor, it is strictly organized, rather in the image of a mill town - there's a heirarchy of breakers, runners, overseers, and management, and then there's support personnel (hookers and drug suppliers) for those who can't physically cope with the rigors of ship breaking.
We are living in a warmer future, one with higher sea levels and a giant divide between rich and poor. I believe we're somewhere on the Gulf of Mexico (although a two-day high-speed train ride to New Orleans would seem to indicate we started further away). Nailer encounters a rich girl, shipwrecked on a boat whose opulence represents a wealth he can barely comprehend, and he decides to help her - in part because he hopes she can pull him out of his bleak and brutal life, but, even from the start, because his humanity - something in short supply on his beach - will not let him abandon her.
One of the things I like about the book is that we don't get an overview of this world, not at first, and, really, not at the end. The author leaves it to us to flesh out some of the details that he lets drop. Carbon limits. Drowned cities. A seeming absence of government. An emphasis on trade agreements, even at the very tiny level of who gets to strip which part of which dead ship. Hmm. Hm, I say.
Whenever I read a YA book set in an alternate reality - future, alternate past, whatever - I look for the element that seems similar to our current time, and in this book, it's the gulf between rich and poor. Nailer's life could look a lot like the life of the scavengers that I've seen on the beaches in southern India. Nita, the rich girl, who is, I think not coincidentally, South Asian, is an Upper East Sider to the core. Educated and spoiled, strong of body through good nutrition and Phys Ed classes, she manages to keep pace with Nailer purely through strength of will and advantageous upbringing. By the end of the book, both teenagers see each other as real people, but it is debatable whether their worlds can merge.
There is a lot of violence in this book. It's completely consonant with the difficult world that Bacigalupi has conjured. I can't decide whether it is made more shocking by the bright sunlight and tropical setting, or if that setting mitigates it somewhat. It certainly is an interesting contrast, and reinforces the "Third World" feel of the book.