Review: War Girls
Citing a long history of erasure and silence surrounding the Nigerian civil war, author Tochi Onyebuchi wrote WAR GIRLS (Amazon) to illustrate the way that the tensions that incited the conflict–economic, religious, tribal–exist today and how they might play out in a post-apocalyptic future. I didn’t know any of this history when I started the book and the story stands admirably on its own (interested readers can find additional reading in Onyebuchi’s afterword).
WAR GIRLS is rooted in the specifics of Nigeria and the conflict, and Onyebuchi’s talent lies in making the futuristic world of mechs, space colonies, and irradiated wastelands feel not like window dressing, but an integral part of the story.
WAR GIRLS opens in the 2100s. Sisters Onyii and Ify live in an entirely female enclave of former Biafran child soldiers. They scrape together a living, hiding under the radar from the Nigerian forces that would destroy them if they found them, as they consider all Biafrans rebels.
Ify has created what she calls her “Accent,” a truly astonishing piece of tech that allows her to hack into any network, whether to do school work or to take control of an rampaging mech. Unbeknownst to her, however, this same device alerts the Nigerians to the camp’s position and the camp is razed. Ify is taken by the Nigerians, believing that Onyii died in the raid. Onyii is taken back into the Biafran military and redeployed as a soldier, also believing that her sister is dead.
The narrative jumps four years in the future. Both the Nigerians and the Biafrans believe they are winning the war. In Nigeria, Ify learns that Onyii was not her savior, but her kidnapper, taking her as a young child from her family and village. In Biafra, Onyii has become known as the Demon of Biafra for her incredible abilities as a mech pilot. Along with other war girls, she is recruited into an elite forces program. Onyii’s new duties and Ify’s rise in Nigerian society bring them in conflict with each other, and eventually back together.
Along the way, we see more of the personal costs of violence to the lives of the war girls, the exploitative nature of colonialism, the misunderstanding of religion, and the corrosive poison of war at work in the lives of Nigerians and Biafrans alike.
WAR GIRLS has some very cool mech fighting scenes, but it feels disingenuous to sell WAR GIRLS as a book about mechs when at its core it’s a narrative about trauma, sisterhood, and the continuing costs of war. There is a nice turn about a quarter of the way through the novel, where each side’s narrative about the conflict becomes more apparent, and it becomes clear that the characters are not admitting the truth to themselves.
Onyebuchi’s WAR GIRLS weaves together mechs, nuclear apocalypse, trauma, and sisterhood in an expoloration of the costs of war.
Short chapters and Onyebuchi’s insistent prose drive the narrative forward at a good pace, although the pacing falters in the last handful of chapters, which suffer a series of unnecessary action sequences.
Onyebuchi does an excellent job of letting us into Onyii and Ify’s heads. Onyebuchi tells his story in the present tense, which along with his relatively spare writing makes the story feel immediate and present. Some of the immediacy means that the longer arcs are a little difficult to parse out. For example, while it was clear that Onyii was part of a special military project, the actual explanation about her belonging to an elite corps of soldiers with a secret mission came much too late. There were also some other small signposting issues, which could have made for a more seamless reading experience.
WAR GIRLS’ detailed world building and the specificity of Onyebuchi’s depiction of the war combine to create a compelling narrative.
- Recommended Age: 13+
- Language: None
- Violence: All of the violence associated with a devastating civil war (shooting, suicide bombing, glimpses of torture)
- Sex: A kiss or two