Book Review: WAR GIRLS by Tochi Onyebuchi

War Girls confronts true Nigerian history as an unflinching, compassionate witness to unspeakable violence. Tochi Onyebuchi paints gritty, powerful girls that endure and overcome.

Book Cover: War Girls


Two sisters are torn apart by war and must fight their way back to each other in a futuristic, Black Panther–inspired Nigeria.

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.

I am Nigerian because a white man said so. I was Igbo because my tribespeople long ago said so. And I am Biafran because I say so.”

What a satisfying, provoking… meal of a book.

When done well, there’s a deep satisfaction I get from reading about teen girls running and climbing and gritting their teeth against pain and tearing fabric with their teeth and just being grimy and angry. It’s a deep, guttural satisfaction that I can’t quite explain. I remember feeling it as a teen reader, and I still feel it. War Girls hit exactly that spot for me.

Those girls are tough and gritty and oh, so competent. I do love a character that’s great at her job.

Some might be turned off by the specialness of the two main characters. They’re both prodigiously talented at something impressive and highly respected by others despite being teens. I definitely have fatigue for that kind of character (especially in YA fantasy, oof) but I didn’t mind here. For one thing, no trope is tired until it’s been done to death by marginalized perspectives too, and the simple fact that these two badass geniuses were Black girls made it feel fresh and subversive. On top of that, Onyebuchi wisely refrained by populating the book with boys falling over their feet in love with the girls, and that kept it from being too cringey.

War Girls is unexpectedly compassionate.

War Girls is so bloody and uncompromising, you might not expect it to also be this tender. But it is. The story keeps the relationship between two girls (a sisterly, mother/daughter-ly, friends-to-enemies-to-allies relationship) at its heart. Beneath all the (extremely well-written) scenes of thrilling battle is a soul-deep longing for peace.

Onyebuchi is going for a ridiculously difficult balancing act. He’s trying to mirror a real life conflict, which is always a minefield, especially when many of the tensions underlying the War still exist today. There are many moving parts in this world, and no clear “good guys.” To my mind, he pulls it off. I never felt that he was both-sidesing me about the conflict, just being honest about the complexity of heroism in the midst of overlapping atrocities. He reaches towards compassion for many characters, trying to understand them without necessaruly absolving them.

I’ll be honest, this one barely edged into the five-star bracket.

I do have some frustrations with the writing. Most notably, there are a few important facts that are deliberately held back from the reader, and that grinds my gears. When I get a character’s POV, I expect their P of freaking V. There are multiple points where we watch the character we’re following “see something” but are specifically not told what they’re seeing. These are important events for plot and character, but we don’t get to actually witness them because it’ll be more dramatic to reveal them later on. To me, that breaks a fundamental promise you make with the reader. Besides, the book is twisty enough without the delayed reveals. It’s unnecessary and sort of infantilizing.

But for me, the five-star category is for books that I liked, that I think are done well, and that I will rec to others unprompted. I feel that “evangelical zeal” about War Girls that makes me want to tell everyone I know about it. I really think it’s a wonderful addition to the YA shelves, so that’s five stars for sure.

Yes, you’ll want to know the background.

I think you could read War Girls without any prior knowledge of the Nigerian Civil War. If you’re a careful reader and pay close attention, you’ll still be able to understand everything that happens.

But I’m not sure why you’d want to. The story is so much richer if you have just a little familiarity. I’m sure readers who are well-educated on the history or are Nigerian themselves would understand the nuances even more.

Because there’s so much to say (and I love me a historiography deep dive), I’m working on a whole post giving a crash-course on the Nigerian Civil War and discussing the relationship between War Girls and the real history.

There has been writing about Biafra, but not nearly enough. And not nearly enough of it by those who can still feel the imprint of the conflict on their lives.”

Author’s Note, US ARC

You can also get a brief overview of the conflict from the Author’s Note at the end of the book (page 448 of the US ARC). I’d recommend starting with this note, unless you want to go in completely blind to the themes of the story. It’s helpful from a factual perspective (Onyebuchi reviews the major elements of the War) and from a literary one. War Girls, Onyebuchi says, is his way of working through it, of “sifting poison out of the water drawn from the well” and giving current generations new ways to approach traumatic history. His connection to the conflict is personal–not only as a Nigerian, but as the son of a childhood survivor of the violence. The Note (a mere four pages) is just as moving and sharp as any chapter in the book. If you come across a copy in a bookstore or library, try beginning with the Note. It’s likely you’ll want to read more.

Content Warnings for War Girls include violence (lots of on-page violence towards and by teens); on-page supporting character death; on-page serious injury and limb loss; abandonment, kidnapping, and family violence; drug use, smoking, and alcohol use by teen characters. Warning for triggers related to racism/colorism, ethnic cleansing, hate, discrimination/oppression, war, and chronic illness and cancer. The book includes many characters with prosthetics (and sci-fi enhancements) with some violence related to prosthetics.

Thank you to Wednesday Books for providing an advance review copy of this title. No money changed hands for this review and all opinions are my own.

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