Hullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie has everything I might want in a book: friendships between angry female cyborgs, super soldiers with a persistent and creative body horror element, and a confined, high-stakes setting on a human fleet wandering between stars. Unfortunately, while these elements are emphasized and mixed in excellent and new ways, many other elements of the story are tired and left me struggling to get through the first half of the book.
There’s a quilt of homage or repetition here: the armor suits and augmentations from Old Man’s War, the spacefaring class system of An Unkindness of Ghosts, the military mind-meld of Ninefox Gambit, even a few phrases lifted directly and jarringly from Star Wars. Too full of horror to be a comfort read and not detailed enough to be transporting horror, Hullmetal Girls is stuck in a strange in-between place — while still being exactly the kind of book I’m glad to see enter the science fiction YA canon.
The main push of the story starts with Aisha Un-Haad, the anxious and devout daughter of a low-District (read: lower class) starship in a fleet organized in social tiers. In order to earn enough money to treat her younger brother’s disease, she joins the Scela, super-soldiers augmented with hullmetal and artificial intelligence. She’s joined by Key Tanaka, a judgmental upper-tier girl who can’t remember why she decided to undergo the painful and dangerous modifications required to join the corps.
From the beginning, the pacing is a bit odd; the reader is thrown into the (fascinating and gruesome) augmentation process with hardly enough time to get to know Aisha or her family. The first half of the book is primarily concerned with Scela training, which I found to be surprisingly slow for how excellent the actual science fiction was. The augmentation is horrific and vividly described, but the recovery feels rushed.
Skrutskie’s super soldiers are impossible to mistake for human; I love the descriptions of metal skeletons so bulky the characters can’t turn their heads. Ports along their jaws and the scar-tissue-bounded ridge of the AI connection make the Scela look alien, a fact that the main characters never fail to remember even if the cover illustration seems to have forgotten. The persistent discomfort and joy the characters get from their modifications was one of my favorite aspects of the book, explored on both an emotional and physical level in a way that felt like a cool and careful response to the super soldier genre.
The corps camaraderie comes across too, and I loved seeing characters enjoying their newfound strength. The AI called exos are almost characters in their own right in an interesting way, their alien impulses and toothy self-preservation providing some of the novels’ most interesting texture. I love the idea that young women reading science fiction will know it’s a place where angry, scarred girls can get super powers and navigate tough moral choices.
However, those characters are exactly why reading this book was slow for me. Chapters switched back and forth between the two voices. Compounding the feeling that I didn’t have enough information about either of them, the two voices sound very similar despite their different reactions to things. Even with their names signposted at the beginning of the chapters, I found myself losing track of whose perspective I was reading. Their history lacks warmth and detail, and the resolution of Key’s memory loss looks extraordinarily similar to a different blockbuster YA protagonist. The worldbuiding in the starships is far less interesting than the exosystem between the characters’ ears. Instead of gradually showing the world-building, information is doled out in a way that feels a bit too polished, a bit artificial.
Sometimes, the exosystem functions conveniently, with characters sometimes struggling to hide their thoughts and other times switching in and out of the mind-meld comfortably. More explanation of this might have been distracting, but combined with the prose — unexciting if technically varied — and the strangely muted pacing in the beginning, it took me out of the story even more without an explanation. A major plot point that I thought would connect to the rest of the narrative fizzled out, even though it was a key part of Aisha’s motivation in the first place. Even by the end there wasn’t enough detail about the world for Aisha’s family to feel real, and we never really meet Key’s.
The writing style is clean and punchy, but the use of first person dilutes rather than enhances it, smoothing out strong verbs and emotional insights into a lulling train of thought. The voices drag instead of kicking the momentum into gear, even when the scenes themselves are dramatically satisfying. About halfway through, the stakes and drama rise and the story becomes more compelling. Action scenes are breathless, and both characters are allowed to fully feel and act on their justified anger. The lack of underlying detail means that Aisha and Key’s emotional resolution feels thin, even as it sits neatly within an action scene I’d love to see on screen.
This novel is so very close to what I wanted it to be that to say otherwise is uncomfortable. I loved the characters as ideas rather than people and, to a degree, that’s fine — especially for someone unfamiliar with the super soldier subgenre, Hullmetal Girls could be an exciting and empowering story. But “empowering” does not make up for world-building that seems partially lifted from The Hunger Games. I respect it and hope it’s exactly the story someone else needs, but I’m not entirely sure I enjoyed it.