The Water Knife is a near-future science fiction thriller where water is the ultimate commodity between the haves and have-nots, yet it is not another Mad Max: Fury Road with flashy special effects and apocalypse-fetish costuming or another dystopian media circus with the protagonists competing game show-style against each other.
The Wild West image gets updated. It is a new frontier fighting for water instead of gold, with “water crisis” going from general save-the-planet sentiment to the nitty gritty, and Phoenix is where the showdown happens. The story is told through three viewpoints: Angel, a water knife, is hired to "cut" water wherever his Las Vegas boss orders him to and is tasked with investigating the situation in Phoenix; Lucy is a journalist of collapse porn (sensationalist journalism goes from getting all the gruesome glory of individual tragedies to capturing the dying and death of places) who has come to Phoenix to report its dying, but she has gone native and come to care for what happens to Phoenix; Maria is a Texan refugee among many in Phoenix trying to survive and save enough to get out. Their very separate lives and stories come to intersect with each other.
Bacigalupi focuses on the characters and their individual stories, yet their stories form a bigger picture of the kind of world they live in. Each characters' perspective adds something to the puzzle. They each represent different parties, encountering others as well, all with their own vested interest in what happens to Phoenix, but they never become just a mouthpiece for some ideal. Politics clash with different sides trying to outsmart and outmaneuver each other. Bacigalupi offers strong writing with thought-provoking ideas, solid world-building, and strong character development. These characters are all fascinating to follow. They are well-developed and flawed, survivors in some way, pushed to their limits, and it is interesting to see what they do when pushed. Bacigalupi does not hold back on the brutality and cruelness, but it does not become gratuitous, giving enough detail to be disturbing. The thriller element comes from a piece of information that is a game changer between the competing cities, and things get pretty action-packed with the struggle to get control of it. It becomes a literal find-the-needle-in-the-haystack situation, with an unexpected ending. The Water Knife is not flashy sci-fi, but its plausible future will challenge and resonate with readers.