War Girls, Tochi Onyebuchi (Razorbill 978-0-451-48167-2, $18.99, 464pp, hc) October 2019.
War Girls is a meditation on culture and conflict. It’s action-driven but complex, brutal but brilliant.
A strong opening in a stark, discomfiting setting introduces Onyii, a girl who has known war for most of her life. A handful of lines establish her dissonance with her own body, her social group, and her situation as a “war girl” – one of a number of warriors trained for battle since childhood. Her off-page history hints not only at violence but at being accustomed to violence, without being pushy on messaging, allowing the reader to ease into deeper implications around each narrative aspect. Human connection is juxtaposed with this cold, dangerous world, and in just a few pages the story is already startling, textured, subtle, and exceptional.
To put the bad news up front: characters can, upon occasion, seem to be little more than eyes to show the reader the horrors of war. Happenstance, coincidence, and events which are generally beyond the reach of the main characters drive large portions of the plot. Perhaps this imitates the feeling of being in a country engulfed in war: individuals are pulled by the tides of events larger than themselves, and can only undertake smaller scale goals specific to each moment, such as “win this skirmish” or more simply “survive this moment” (rather than, say, setting out to overthrow a government). Because of this, the read often feels episodic. Most of these moments involve the characters reacting to and dealing with something that happens. Each moment is linked and still relevant to the overall story in important ways. But it would have been nice to feel that unifying, character driven plot structure.
The good news is that this is still a stunning book. And while many larger events are not necessarily character-driven, the smaller moments, and the decisions each character makes in those moments, carry personal consequences.
The heart of the story centers on Onyii and her ward Ify. They are part of an all-female group comprised mostly of combatants and refugees within Nigeria who are trying to stay out of the war. They are struggling to survive on their own, and taking up scavenged arms in self-defense. Rusty mechs, cracked tablets, and scant food keep them alive. Years before, Onyii rescued Ify from certain death and brought her back to be raised among Onyii’s own people – a group which is ethnically/culturally different from Ify. Their world is upended when their encampment is attacked. Ify is taken by soldiers and Onyii is left for dead. Believing Ify to be dead, Onyii turns into a killing machine, fighting for the Biafran cause. Ify struggles to find her identity among the people who took her, who tell her that she was stolen from them in the first place. The narrative’s powerful emotional heartbeat involves the swings of Onyii and Ify’s relationship, as well as their relationships with various parts of society, the war, and themselves – their rises and falls, catastrophic trials, and the impact it all has on their beliefs as well as on who they are as people. While their decisions might not drive some major plot events, and while it often seems like they are moving with the tide, their decisions do have massive impact on the heart of the story.
In his acknowledgments Onyebuchi says he described the idea for this book to his agent as “Gundam in Nigeria.” Action pulses through the narrative in some great combat sequences, although it occasionally wavers from gritty realism to super-heroish. There are mechs, there are people who are modified for combat in a variety of ways, and more.
Nuclear disaster has left the world of the future an interesting place, and some of the details in War Girls are fun and innovative; the worldbuilding overall is fantastic. Many of the SFnal aspects are better left unspoiled for the reader, leaving the sense of “cool discoveries” as part of the read. There are nanobots which, as a story device, are almost always an essentially “magical” and arbitrary element in fiction and film: they can usually do whatever the writer wants, and inexplicably cannot do whatever the writer wants, without underlying rules to make it all cohesive. This book isn’t necessarily a “hard SF” book but the visuals and the ideas are entertaining; and the nanobots enhance the story, rather than being a crutch or an overused device.
Nigeria became independent from the UK in 1960. In 1967 Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu declared the eastern region of Nigeria to be the Republic of Biafra, officially starting a civil war which had been brewing for a while. US media coverage centered around images of famine and notions of genocide, atrocities, and so on; by the end of the war, as Onyebuchi remarks in his notes, “two million civilians had died of famine during a blockade established by the Nigerian government.”
War Girls draws on the historical Nigerian civil war, asking the question: what if this civil war happened in Nigeria of the late 2100’s? This is not, however, a preachy, one-sided narrative with clear political intentions. This is a dexterous examination of war itself, and importantly, of the various people involved in war. There are themes on arbitrary enmity, internal/external racism, the effect and utilization of patriotism and loyalty, the complexities of personality and interfacing with compatriots, and much more, all laced through a captivating story. What makes this book brilliant is the depth of these examinations, the way the story looks at different sides and different people, never falling into soapboxing, but rather, focusing on personal stories.
The depiction of religion is a great example. Nigeria is home to people of different religions, and religion was a point of contention in the war (both the historical war and the war in the book). War Girls explores the way each religion is used against the enemy, the way prejudice and religion interact and affect each other, the way people use religion to bolster themselves in positive and negative ways; all while depicting each religion as complex, belief as complex, and treating each religion (and their adherents) with respect; not to mention giving each religion moments of beauty. Moreover, one wouldn’t say this book “is about religion” at all. The book, at the end of everything, is about people, told with characters drawn so well that they very well could be real.
Most of the story cleverly tackles a ton of concepts and issues (too many to list here) while drawing the reader through a violence-soaked narrative, playing with tension, perception, and morality. But the ending felt rushed and didn’t sit quite as well. It was a lot of things piled on at once, and strained the limits of suspension of disbelief. Regardless, this is one of the best books I’ve read in 2019, and everyone should read it.
This review and more like it in the February 2020 issue of Locus.
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