3 stars (but only because I’m honestly undecided and have no idea what my feelings really are about this book)
Aisha Un-Haad and Key Tanaka’s lives collide after they both convert to become Scela, mechanically enhanced soldiers sworn to protect and serve the governing body of the Fleet–the starships their people call home.
Aisha converts to fund her brother’s plague treatment, but this’ll only happen if her unit receives a top placement–and a high pay grade. Key doesn’t even know why she’s become a Scela, giving up a life of luxury to become a hulking soldier with gaps in her memory.
The two girls must learn to work together–because a rebellion is stirring, pitting those who yearn for independence from the Fleet against a government struggling to maintain unity. Both will find themselves questioning their loyalties. They will have to put aside their differences, though, if they want to keep humanity from tearing itself apart.
So…what just happened?
I honestly am just a big jumble of EMOTIONS™ after this book because wow there were so many things going on and this was a wild ride.
I’m probably going to have to sleep on this decision, but the best way I can describe my feelings is this is an adult science-fiction plot shoved into the young adult format and I have a lot of thoughts about this.
There were so many political machinations going on that this felt adult sci-fi. If you’ve ever read adult sci-fi, you know there’s usually a lot of “bigger picture” stuff going on rather than just focusing on the characters. It’s oftentimes more detached, third person, alternating, and just has a wider, more intricate plot and less focus on the characters.
That’s almost exactly how it was for Hullmetal Girls–the big, overarching plot was well-plotted and intricate–I had no idea who to trust and my loyalties kept wavering between the Fractionists (the rebel group) and the General Body (the government).
But, it was written in a very YA style. There were two points of view in first person and there was an obvious non-romantic bond between the characters that really grew. There was a lot of focus on saving family (more of a YA trope than an adult one) and their backstories made it feel like Skrutskie picked these characters to make this book more YA.
I guess what fell flat for me was just how the adult and YA aspects of this novel melded together into what’s supposed to be a YA book. I love YA, but I feel like this book’s concept would have had way more success in the adult SF sphere vs. the YA (but it still could have flourished as YA).
For it to appeal better to the general YA community, I feel like this needed to have gone more in depth with the characters and really dig into their personal feelings and desires. There needed to be at least a hundred more pages of personal thought and introspection to get that character growth that would really help the reader connect more with the narrators rather than the plot.
I feel like we ended up getting a little of each YA and adult–some introspection, but not enough for us to really relate to the characters, and a lot of political machinations.
This book is almost ahead of its time in the way it’s trying to bridge the gap between YA and adult, and although I commend this, I feel terrible that it’s not getting the love it deserves because I don’t think we were prepared for something so badass and gritty.
A big par of this is just how YA isn’t really used to this type of body horror. There’s one thing to have prosthetic cyborg body parts in Cinder, or even LIFEL1K3. It’s another thing to deal with cybernetic enhancements that actively make people stronger, faster, bolder while also tampering with their humanity and agency.
You read adult SF, and things like sentient artificial intelligence (and even romance with sentient AIs) are normal. If you read this in an adult SF headscape, it’d feel pretty normal too.
But for YA, the idea of cybernetic enhancement and losing part of your agency is very unfamiliar based on the history of YA sci-fi, and one of the reasons why I couldn’t enjoy this as much as I wanted to was because I felt like we didn’t get that background and introduction to how to deal with losing your agency in this way and what happens when characters bodies are tampered with to such a great extent.
A lot of the terms felt unfamiliar to me, and it could be because these terms are a norm in adult SF, or just because Skrutskie didn’t introduce it in a way that I could understand.
For me, it was kind of like I was being thrust headfirst into a very new and different type of science fiction that I’m not entirely used to. It didn’t feel like a space opera–wasn’t melodramatic enough and was far too cunning.
So I guess we could call this not enough exposition, leaving the reader confused.
Despite all this criticism I have going on, there were a lot of great things about this book.
It’s uber diverse: one of the MCs is aroace (also wears a headscarf & has the last name Un-Haad), the other I believe is Asian (last name Tanaka). Someone on their crew is trans (Skrutskie slipped in this information in a way that was low-key for the reader & not like she was parading her trans character around, but also the actual scene was unfortunate in the way that a lot of the characters’ secrets were revealed invasively and without permission) and also a WOC. The last person on their crew was (I think) an Asian boy.
So yeah, there’s a bunch of diversity in this and it’s really naturally scattered, which was nice to see in science fiction.
Plus, the ending was so wild. I ended up getting really sucked in for the last 20% of this novel as I finally discovered what group I’m supposed to be rooting for (think outside the box) and seeing the political machinations really fall into place.
Although I struggled with the cybernetic worldbuilding, I think the space Fleet-wide worldbuilding was done wonderfully and I understood the way the fleet worked and why the divisions existed and how they formed and why they continued to be perpetuated (rather than being thrust into District 12 being District 12 just because).
There’s a lot of pluses to this–angry badass cyborg girls, bunches of diversity, a very cool plot, family and friendship and finding your people.
Overall, I think it was worth it for me to read this, but I do wish it was a little more polished in a way that it would be easier for a YA reader to connect with. Definitely recommend you check this out if the summary appeals to you!
Thank you so much to Netgalley and Random House for providing me with a digital review copy in exchange for an honest review!