A long time ago, I mentioned that Ship Breaker is the epitome of post-apocalyptic novel. As for The Drowned Cities? It could better be described as the epitome of a holy-fuck-the-apocalypse-is-happening-right-now novel.
Although Goodreads lists this book as #2 in the Ship Breaker series, it stands alone really well. There is only one crossover character, Tool, and given certain elements of his personality and the fact that the events of the first book never seem to cross his mind, I would assume that this story actually happens prior to Ship Breaker. But I'd still recommend reading Ship Breaker first. Why? Because The Drowned Cities is much, much darker (and better).
The Drowned Cities is about war. Not "fight and sacrifice for your freedom and beliefs" war. The characters in The Drowned Cities are trapped in the midst of wars that are, if anything, entirely pointless. The wars tear through everyone's lives, and the only way to avoid being a victim is to be a perpetrator. As much as Ship Breaker dealt with loyalty vs. survival, the theme comes out much stronger in this book. And Paolo Bacigalupi explores every aspect of these themes.
But what really makes this book shine are the characters. There are no token characters in this book. Mahlia, Mouse, and Tool are all very dynamic. And even the soldiers are more than stock villains. They are written as reckless, fearful young men all trying to find meaning and a sense of security in their violence.
Something else I loved about this book is the way it differs from so many other modern dystopias. This is more than a crapsack background that brings two young lovers together. The Sparkle Project recently commented on how many authors seem to shelter their characters from the truly horrific realities of their world. Sure, they might have an angsty past and a few near-death experiences, but for the most part, the "plot shield" still holds. This is not the case in The Drowned Cities. Mahlia and Mouse are just as vulnerable as any other character, and they suffer just as much as everyone else.
To recommend this book to fans of dystopia would be an understatement. Actually, it would be wrong. Until you have read The Drowned Cities, you cannot even call yourself a true lover of dystopia.