Hullmetal Girls: A fast, generally fun read

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Hullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie science fiction book reviewsHullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie science fiction book reviewsHullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie

Hundreds of years into the future, humanity abandoned Earth and embarked upon an interstellar mission aboard a cluster of ships which eventually became the Fleet. Fleet ships are policed and protected by an elite squad of mechanically-augmented super-soldiers known as Scela, who serve the whims of the Chancellor and enforce her laws (along with a rigid social caste system). Aisha Un-Haad is desperate to provide a good life for her younger siblings, but her deck janitor’s salary isn’t enough to cover her plague-infected brother’s medical bills, so the only option left is to join the Scela. Key Tanaka is a mystery, a near-perfectly blank slate with no idea of who she used to be or why she volunteered for Scela service, but fragments of memory pop up in times of extreme stress, and they seem to indicate that her current identity can’t be trusted. Can these two unlikely partners put aside their differences long enough to save humanity from its own worst instincts?

There aren’t a lot of surprises, plot-wise, in Hullmetal Girls (2018) — once Emily Skrutskie lays out who the players are and what’s at stake, everything follows the expected beats of a dystopian YA sci-fi novel. What livens it up and kept me reading, however, is the depth and breadth of diversity represented by the characters across every possible spectrum of race, gender, creed, and influence. The overwhelming number of important figures are women and some of them, like Aisha’s aunt Yasmin, contain some interesting depth and reasoning for their actions. And the descriptions of body-modification, especially the initial joining of flesh to metal and the subsequent dissonance between personal agency and the Scela hive-mind, often gave me chills.

Emily Skrutskie

Aisha and Key aren’t as interesting as their other squad mates, Woojin “Wooj” Lih and Praava Ganes, whose personal histories create all kinds of hurdles for their Scela-integration process. Bringing their perspectives into the narrative would have gone a long way toward creating a more in-depth world, illustrating the challenges faced by Scela who are either too good or not adept at suborning their own identity to their cybernetic programming, and eliminating the sometimes-indistinguishable sound of Aisha and Key’s alternating point-of-view chapters. Moreover, there’s a late-stage big character reveal that really needed more establishment early on in order for its later importance to earn its place as the driving force for that character’s behavior; I kept wondering if there was supposed to be a prologue or a previously-published short story that I should have read in order for that reveal to make sense.

Hullmetal Girls reminded me of elements of other science-fiction novels and video games that I’ve really enjoyed, like Heinlein’s juvenilia (though Skrutskie’s prose is way more female-positive and forward-thinking) and the constantly-moving fleet of Quarian ships in the MASS EFFECT series. Social unrest and divisions in the tightly-controlled and enclosed environment of space are well portrayed, and Aisha’s and Key’s sprint to uncover various truths before they are permanently silenced is certainly gripping in the moment, although I found myself comparing this work to meatier fare in hindsight. Hullmetal Girls was a fun way to spend an afternoon, though, and sometimes that’s all I’m looking for.

Published July 17, 2018. Don’t miss the novel that New York Times bestselling author Beth Revis says “you will devour in one sitting,” perfect for fans of Pierce Brown and the Illuminae series. Aisha Un-Haad would do anything for her family. When her brother contracts a plague, she knows her janitor’s salary isn’t enough to fund his treatment. So she volunteers to become a Scela, a mechanically enhanced soldier sworn to protect and serve the governing body of the Fleet, the collective of starships they call home. If Aisha can survive the harrowing modifications and earn an elite place in the Scela ranks, she may be able to save her brother. Key Tanaka awakens in a Scela body with only hazy memories of her life before. She knows she’s from the privileged end of the Fleet, but she has no recollection of why she chose to give up a life of luxury to become a hulking cyborg soldier. If she can make it through the training, she might have a shot at recovering her missing past. In a unit of new recruits vying for top placement, Aisha’s and Key’s paths collide, and the two must learn to work together–a tall order for girls from opposite ends of the Fleet. But a rebellion is stirring, pitting those who yearn for independence from the Fleet against a government struggling to maintian unity. With violence brewing and dark secrets surfacing, Aisha and Key find themselves questioning their loyalties. They will have to put aside their differences, though, if they want to keep humanity from tearing itself apart.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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