War Girls gives a captivating and harrowing sneak peek of the potential future before us in the 2170s: The Earth ravaged by climate change, space colonies forming, human beings turning more machine-like, and the remaining Earth dwellers struggling to survive. Among the struggling Earth dwellers are the Africans in what was once Nigeria, who now must endure a civil war between Nigeria in the north and Biafra in the south. Between the two nations are the Redlands, an unlivable area that can kill one in an instant due to radiation poisoning. Two sisters bound not by blood but by friendship – Onyii from Biafra and Ify from Nigeria – learned from an early age always to be vigilant and willing to fight for their lives. After Ify is torn away from Onyii due to the obstruction of their small Biafran camp full of young warrior girls, the two sisters live very different lives: Onyii as an infamous and remarkable battle weapon for Biafra, and Ify as a budding scholar-to-be in Nigeria. Throughout the book, the two become entrenched more and more into their respective nations’ fight. Will they find another again? How strong are the bonds of sisterhood amidst chaos and ruin?
Tochi Onyebuchi has ingeniously crafted a philosophical, exciting adventure based upon the actual history of Nigeria, projections for the future, and questions about what makes us human. Nigerians have not been undivided in the past. Between 1967 and 1970, shortly after Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom, the Igbo established the republic of Biafra and were in staunch opposition to the Hausa-Fulani in Nigeria. During that time, ethnic tensions divided the nations. In Onyebuchi’s story, ethnic tensions have resurfaced, and the two regions are also in an intense competition for resources. Indeed, throughout much of his book, racial and ethnic animosity is present – animosity against other fellow Africans and animosity against the white-skinned Europeans who were advantaged enough to make it to space before anyone else. This racial strife provides a sobering reflection for the reader, for it is clear that in this universe, privilege, racism, and hatred of fellow human beings not only continue but are also heightened due to the persistent brawl to live on a toxic planet from day to day. This scenario provides a warning to the reader: If we do not protect our planet, the worst of humanity will be revealed.
Understandings of humanity are evoked frequently throughout the novel. As has been predicted frequently within the STEM community, technology in the 2170s allows for advanced, annihilating warfare, as well as the integration of human with machine. Technological devices, known in the novel as Augments, can be applied to any part of the body – even the brain – and allow for people to do what was once unimaginable, such as gain superhuman strength or the ability to download the thoughts of others. Interestingly, in this universe, there is a dichotomy of thought among Earth’s remaining citizens – a dichotomy that represents those who favor bionic beings and those who ask the inevitable questions: How much technology is too much? Where is the line between machine and human? Additionally, characters in this novel often occupy both trains of thought. At one moment, a character might look down upon the “redbloods” who are “primitive” in their lack of Augments. At another moment, the same character will be chilled by beings known as “synths” who are combinations of various past people’s body parts and various machine parts – those who supposedly are no longer human at all. These circumstances make the reader wonder: Where is the balance, if any? At one point does one “stop” being human?
The themes of identity – particularly within the spheres of race, ethnicity, and technology – are perhaps the strongest in Onyebuchi’s novel, but there are other themes and qualities of this novel that make it an unforgettable read. Onyebuchi’s writing style is accessible and insightful. The novel contains scenes with thrilling and anxiety-inducing action, as well as with tremendous heart. The characters and the relationships are memorable. Lastly, the reader will find it difficult not to care deeply for Onyii and Ify in particular. Through their every victory and struggle, the reader will insatiably turn the next page to find out what happens next.
I highly recommend this book and rate it with five stars for its quality story well-written and its thoughtful themes. Both those who are new to Onyebuchi and are familiar with his previous novels (Beasts Made of Night and Crown of Thunder) will enjoy this book. Ultimately, I recommend this book to all collectors and to all readers who are interested in believable science fiction, strong female characters, and stories based in Africa.
Reviewed by Toyin Falola, Ph.D., University of Texas
Published in Africa Access Review (April 9, 2020)
Copyright 2020 Africa Access