Hullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie. ★★★
Maybe my expectations were too high, but Hullmetal Girls was a bit of a let down.
In the far future, humanity exists on a fleet of generation ships, traveling in search of a habitable planet. The fleet government is determined to maintain unity in the face of a rebellion seeking to split the fleet (so as to improve the odds of finding a planet), and they keep order with the Scela: cyborgs created through a dangerous and often fatal process. Hullmetal Girls follows two new Scela.
Aisha Un-Haad is from the backend of the fleet, one of the poorest and most overcrowded sectors. Her parents are dead, and the money she makes as a janitor isn’t enough to fund her brother’s medical treatment. She’s willing to risk her life for a chance at a better life for her siblings. But even once she survives the operation, she’ll need her unit to make an elite posting so she can get the salary her brother needs. Meanwhile, Key Tanaka has no idea why she became a Scela. She can’t remember anything about her life before, and she wants more than anything to uncover her past and who she was.
I really enjoyed Skrutskie previous novels, The Abyss Surrounds Us and its sequel, so I was eager to pick up Hullmetal Girls. Also, the premise sounded right up my alley. Two female protagonists, both of whom are cyborgs? And knowing Skrutskie, there would bound to be queer characters.
I was right about there being queer characters. The two other members of Aisha and Key’s unit are a straight trans girl and a pansexual cis boy. Aisha is aro ace, while Key’s orientation is unclear (she can’t remember even that much). I was really excited about Aisha being aro ace! Do you know how few books there are with explicitly aro ace protagonists, especially from traditional publishing? I’m very glad Aisha is aro ace. Don’t get me wrong about that. But… it wasn’t really a part of her characterization. The only time it’s ever significant is that one line where she says she’s aro ace. That alone is important because of how rarely you actually see that in books, but I also wanted more. I wanted a character who I could see my own ace identity (and grey-aro) reflected in, and I didn’t get that with Aisha. That, in turn, leads to some larger questions that are beyond the scale of this review, like what role queer identities play in the story and how those identities are presented in science fiction and fantasy narratives.
Oh, one other thing on this subject, because I saw it getting brought up on Twitter. Yes, Aisha says she’s aro ace after witnessing/second-hand experiencing two other members of her unit having sex (all the Scela in a unit are plugged into each others’ brains). I personally would be incredibly freaked out if I was plugged into the brains of people having sex. Aisha’s angry about it for a couple of pages, but it’s forgotten rather quickly. Additionally, the shared brains thing is how it is revealed that a character is trans, instead of her being able to come out on her own terms.
I also had problems with other aspects of the book. Let’s start with plot. You’ve got a rebellion vs. government plotline that is soooooo common to YA science fiction. Literally nothing new or exciting about it. Actually, that is true for a lot of elements in Hullmetal Girls. Take Aisha: having a younger sibling (usually a sister for some reason) as a motivating factor for YA heroines is absurdly common. Basically, this book ended up playing straight a lot of YA tropes and conventions.
Aisha and Key have alternating chapters in first person. Although they’ve got different backgrounds (Key comes from the front of the fleet and is pretty classist), their voices sound so similar. Like, I was constantly getting confused about whose perspective we were in. Part of this might tie back to my criticism of so many elements of Hullmetal Girls being overly familiar. There wasn’t anything to either Aisha or Key that made them really pop as characters. A great first person narrator will have a voice so engaging and unique that I would never mistake them for any other character. Aisha and Key didn’t have that.
World building also felt kind of thin. There most unique element I can think of is having cyborgs as peacekeepers (and even that’s not that unique) and the most significant religion being one that feels like a sci-fi version of Islam (superficially, at least). But with like so much else in Hullmetal Girls, there was nothing that made the setting particularly memorable. It may not help that I’ve read so many other generation ship books (Six Wakes, An Unkindness of Ghosts, Medusa Uploaded). Most notably, The Stars Are Legion had a much more creative take on a fleet of generation ships.
All in all, Hullmetal Girls was a run of the mill YA science fiction novel that failed to deliver on the parts I was most excited about. Still, I’ll probably read whatever Skrutskie writes next. I did enjoy her previous books, and most every author ends up having at least one book I don’t like as much as their rest.
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.