Page Count: 451
Release Date: October 15th, 2019
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars – Liked It!
Note: I was provided a free ARC of this book by the publisher in return for a fair and honest review.
In the year 2172, the country of Nigeria is embroiled in civil war. This is a war fought with mechs and drones, where radiation has made large parts of the world uninhabitable and humans can be enhanced with all kinds of cybernetics. Two teenage girls, Onyii and Ify, live and fight with a rebel group known as the War Girls, fighting on behalf of the Republic of Biafra, a section of Nigeria inhabited by the Igbo people who want to break off into their own country. The two girls have lived as close as sisters since Onyii found Ify orphaned after a battle destroyed her village. But after an attack on the encampment, Onyii is left for dead, and Ify is “rescued” and returned to her home country of Nigeria. With both sisters unaware the other is still alive, they spend the next four years on opposite sides of the war, fighting to bring an end to the conflict by any means necessary.
WAR GIRLS is an emotional tale of the particular brutality of civil war. In an author’s note at the end of the book, Onyebuchi writes that this story was inspired by the real-life Nigerian Civil War of the 1960s, something his own mother experienced first-hand as a child. That influence shows here, as Onyebuchi explores all the different ways that particular war decimated a nation: child soldiers, land mines, maiming, and the ever-present “us vs. them” mentality that reduces the enemy to faceless horrors, to mindless savages that can be killed without question. Putting the two girls on opposite sides reinforced how each side viewed the other, and the justifications that happen to win a war. And the book doesn’t stop once a cease-fire has been declared. The ramifications of the war don’t disappear because bullets stop flying, and I appreciated watching the War Girls trying to adapt to the possibility that there might no longer be a need for violence, and figure out how fit into this new world.
This harrowing real-world-inspired ordeal is wrapped in the veneer of sci-fi. Onyii is a particularly skilled mech pilot, and her fights against enemy mechs are some of the best parts of the book. Envisioning the different ways society has evolved, with increasing reliance on cybernetic enhancements and Ify’s particular skill at hacking systems using an interface she linked into her brain, was well done, and I appreciated this glimpse at a not-so-distant future. Although the time spent outside of Africa is brief, we get a sense that war and climate change have taken their toll on the world, from climate change making places uninhabitable, and creatures that have mutated over time from radiation exposure. Because of this, more and more people have abandoned Earth to live among the stars. It’s a future that feels (unfortunately) real, and grounds this story overall.
There were a few things overall that detracted from my enjoyment. One in particular was the ending of the book. Although I liked that the story went beyond the end of the war, it didn’t feel like the author quite knew how to wrap up the story. Rapid fire events happen in the last 30 pages with such speed that I had whiplash, and most of the plotting at that point felt like it was adding unnecessary complications at the eleventh hour. And while Ify provided an important viewpoint into the Nigerian side of the civil war, I sometimes found her counterparts a little two-dimensional as villains. The author takes care to show that both sides of the conflict were capable of justifying terrible acts, but occasionally the Nigerian side veered into flat monsters, and it lessened the impact slightly for me.
WAR GIRLS is an important examination of conflicts that all too often gets overlooked by Western countries. I know that I know relatively little about the various civil wars that have raged in Africa, and getting a glimpse at the past through this vision of the future was a worthwhile experience. It’s a thrilling conflict with emotional stakes that put both Onyii and Ify through the wringer as they try to survive in a world that seems to want to burn. WAR GIRLS isn’t necessarily an easy read, but it’s definitely worth your time.