Tochi Onyebuchi is a new-to-me author who managed to make me buy all his books without having read the first. Not only does he get great covers (which is something that leads me to more impulse buys than I’d like to admit) but the synopses always sound great. As I’m striving to discover new Black authors, this seemed like the perfect time to pick up one of Onyebuchi’s books. Riot Baby is also on my TBR and I won’t wait long to pick it up. Because this book right here was pretty damn impressive. Not fun, exactly, but very, very good!
by Tochi Onyebuchi
Published: Razorbill, 2019
eBook: 464 pages
Series: War Girls #1
My rating: 7,5/10
Opening line: The first thing Onyii does every morning is take off her arm.
The year is 2172. Climate change and nuclear disasters have rendered much of earth unlivable. Only the lucky ones have escaped to space colonies in the sky.
In a war-torn Nigeria, battles are fought using flying, deadly mechs and soldiers are outfitted with bionic limbs and artificial organs meant to protect them from the harsh, radiation-heavy climate. Across the nation, as the years-long civil war wages on, survival becomes the only way of life.
Two sisters, Onyii and Ify, dream of more. Their lives have been marked by violence and political unrest. Still, they dream of peace, of hope, of a future together.
And they’re willing to fight an entire war to get there.
Let me start with a recommendation. I read a handful of reviews of this book before I started reading it and the number one most helpful tip was to read up – just a little bit – about the Nigerian Civil War. I’m sure you would get the gist of this novel without any prior knowledge but it was very helpful to me. Seriously, a quick read of the Wikipedia summary is enough to get you familiar with the factions involved and some of the names that might not be familiar to western readers like me.
War Girls is set in the future and it’s pretty much exactly what the title promises. Onyii and Ify are two sisters living in a war camp, who have been trained from childhood how to fight, how to disassemble, re-assemble, load and shoot guns, who have been trained to kill. Onyii is one of the best fighters out there and she would do anything to protect her little sister Ify. She also desperately wants freedom for Biafra and doesn’t hesitate to kill Nigerians for that dream.
Ify is different from the other War Girls in that her skin is much lighter and she’s particularly fond of fiddling with technological gadgets.
There is so much to talk about because this novel is about so many things. First and foremost, it’s about children of war. Not just children who experience war relatively “safely” from their home, but actual child soldiers. I shouldn’t have been surprised that both Onyii and Ify read much older than they turn out to be because what’s a kid going to do when you put a gun in her hand and make her kill people? Of course they grow up fast. They have to! This being a war novel, you can expect quite a lot of brutality. It’s not graphic and not gratuitous, but I was frequently disturbed by the things these young girls have to go through. And even in those horrible times, they manage to snatch a few moments of happiness for themselves, mostly because of their tight bond to each other and to the other war girls. But I’m not going to lie, reading this was devastating!
I adored both the main characters. Onyii felt like a protective mother bear right from the start and it’s clear how much she loves Ify and how desperately she wants her little sister to be okay. Ify was intriguing for other reasons at first. Not only does she have a fierce hunger for knowledge, but through Ify, we are also introduced to some cool science-fictional ideas. Ify’s best friend (apart from Onyii) is an android named Enyemaka who I would have loved to see more of. She doesn’t appear too much in this book but when she does, her chapters always had me on the brink of tears.
But androids aren’t the only cool techy things here. This war is fought using mechs which I imagined as smaller versions of the robots from Pacific Rim. Needless to say, this led to many action sequences that unspooled like a movie in my mind. Onyebuchi definitely knows how to write a battle.
And I haven’t even mentioned the enhancements done to human bodies. Augments are people whose body parts have been replaced. Onyii, for example, is missing one arm so she is using one made of metal. And guns, of course…
The plot also includes one of my favorite tropes. After the first part of the book, which introduces our two protagonists and sets the scene, there is a significant time jump. I don’t know why but I LOVE time jumps! I remember gasping when the big jump happened in Battlestar Galactica, I was on the edge of my seat when it happened in the first October Daye novel, and I loved it just as much here. Because Onyii and Ify are separated during a battle, they spend quite a lot of time apart, on different sides of the war. Dark secrets are revealed, each of the girls has to decide how to move on with life, and whether they will be enemies or remain friends. It was heartwrenching but it worked so well because it shows both sides of the war and it makes both of them feel real and believable. Neither side is right, neither side is wrong, it’s just all a big mess where people die and nobody wins.
One of my favorite parts of the book (there are quite a few) was the abd. They are synthetic humans, usually little boys, who train and work with the remaining war girls. I say remaining because – this being a book about war – there are a lot of character deaths. Onyii “gets” her own abd, a little boy who she builds a friendship with, rather than just using him as the tool he was supposed to be. Sure, she teaches him how to shoot guns, but she also indulges in his love for music. Their bond was one of the most beautiful things I’ve read in a long time and another reason this book made me tear up. I almost-cried quite a lot.
That’s all I’m willing to say about acutal plot details. But I do want to mention this book being sold as YA. It does have very young teenage protagonists and the plot itself is not super complex. But it is very dark! I absolutely believe – and will shout this from the rooftops forever and ever – that children and young adults know best which books are for them and which aren’t (yet). And I wouldn’t hesitate to put this book into a young reader’s hands. It’s a hard book to read. Terrible things happen, even our protagonists do horrible things and have horrible things done to them but without reading uncofortable books, we don’t grow. Time and time again, I had to take a break from reading this because it was so dark. Child soldiers is not something I generally like to think about but seeing firsthand what growing up like this does to (fictional) people, made it all the more uncomfortable. The violence is never glorified, the girls’ actions aren’t retroactively justified, and they are both painted as flawed young people who, yes, just didn’t know any better and grew up in a sort of found family that has taught them nothing but war.
With Onyii and Ify spending so much time apart, I was all the more impressed with how well the author portrayed their bond. Even when Onyii is preparing a secret attack or Ify is learning ugly truths about her past, they always feel connected. And it is precisely that connection between them that made this book bearable. Don’t get me wrong, it was a fantastic book, but it’s not a fun one. There are very few moments of happiness to be found so having these two sisters to hold on to helped me through this book. The ending hit exactly the right kind of bittersweet note that felt appropriate for such a story and I will definitely be picking up the sequel Rebel Sisters, which comes out in October. Until then, I will definitely read Riot Baby.
MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!