Onyii is all of 15, but she is battle-worn on every level. She sports a robotic arm — her human one was severed in conflict — and worries she’ll lose her sister, Ify, at any minute. As one of the oldest in a camp of rebel girls based in southeastern Nigeria in the year 2172, she’s an authority on wartime survival. Nigeria is in the grips of civil war, one very similar to the real Biafran War that ravaged the Igbo tribe in 1967-70 as they attempted to secede from Nigeria. In WAR GIRLS (Razorbill, 464 pp., $17.99; ages 12 and up) a series opener from Tochi Onyebuchi (“Beasts Made of Night”), the conflict drags on. Factor in climate change, nuclear disasters and space colonies, and the ultimate dystopian universe reveals itself — part tech-slick playground, part cautionary tale.
The war girls’ camp, made up of child soldiers like Onyii and refugees like her younger charge, Ify, is on constant alert. For the last year, enemy aerial mechs, massive humanoid robots, have been flying overhead, unable to detect the Biafran camp right underneath. The war girls, who have mechs, too, are hiding in plain sight thanks to a signal dampener, one of the many technological flourishes that Onyebuchi employs, mostly to capable effect. After a suicide bomber infiltrates the camp, they are attacked, and Onyii and Ify, who tell the story in alternating chapters, are separated.
At first glance, Ify gets the better deal. Warmly accepted by her Nigerian captors, she’s praised for her technological acumen, especially for developing the Accent, a tool that allows her to hack into other operating systems and control them. Onyii, on the other hand, turns into the Demon of Biafra, a killing machine looking to avenge her sister’s (presumed) death. Sniffing Chukwu, a mineral mixture “that will numb her aching joints and slow her racing mind,” Onyii also feasts on the drug of war: “She got a taste for combat as a child. And like a child given their first sip of palm wine, she had hated the taste. Now, hate or love has nothing to do with it. She needs it.”
Onyebuchi, whose Igbo mother was a schoolgirl during Nigeria’s civil war, is at his finest depicting the contradictory layers of adrenaline, emotional numbness and hopelessness that war summons for Onyii. Her sense of futility hits hardest: When she isn’t fantasizing about the Biafra that will one day emerge shining from all the rubble, Onyii quietly acknowledges that “there are nights when she knows the fighting will be ceaseless.”
“War Girls” bravely depicts the full spectrum of war — the boots-on-the-ground thrill and the deadening psychological toll — in a way rarely seen in literature for young adults, or much literature at all. In his author’s note, Onyebuchi says “War Girls” is meant as a corrective to “the frightening lack of literature” about this period of Nigerian history. No doubt “War Girls” will be revelatory, especially for many young Americans who know war only as a distant, televised event.
But while “War Girls” has a handle on how the geopolitical affects the individual, it has less insight into the individuals themselves. Many of the war girls are underdeveloped, while the drawn-out battle scenes would probably dazzle onscreen but sometimes lack clarity on the page. Onyii and Chinelo, her commanding officer and lover, are strongly bonded, yet it’s hard to tell what connects them besides excellence in combat.
Still, Onyebuchi has created a fascinating futuristic Nigeria and a plot filled with left hooks and upper cuts, even as he nobly illuminates one of the most pervasive conditions of the human experience. “War Girls” provides invaluable insight into the devastation of war for the most vulnerable victims — the children who become soldiers, and pawns, with barely a way to separate the two.