** This review was originally posted on teenreads.com **
“Only the desperate volunteer to become Scela, signing away their bodies and their autonomy to the General Body’s command.”
In her newest release, Emily Skrutskie launches us far into the future where humanity strives to find a habitable planet. A space opera filled with an amazingly diverse cast of characters, readers will embark on a journey diving deep into the question: what does it mean to be human?
A Fleet of starships jets through the stars, as they have for the last 300 years. We first meet Aisha Un-Haad, a young religious girl who is desperate to save her younger brother and sister from an unforgiving life that took both of their parents. When her brother contracts the plague, she knows her janitor salary is no longer enough.
She volunteers to become Scela. An enhanced soldier, where metal and invasive AI will irreversibly merge with her body. If she survives the procedure, and if she can earn a high enough ranking, she may be able to save the ones she loves.
We next meet Key Tanaka, a girl from the wealthier part of the Fleet. She wakes up in an enhanced body with no memory of volunteering, or of undergoing the procedure. Her sole driving force is to find out what happened to her and why she can’t remember huge chunks of her past.
While initially despising each other, Aisha and Key find that they are more alike than they ever thought possible. One has nothing to lose; the other has everything on the line. But they must work together if they’re going to survive the rebellion threatening to tear the remains of humanity apart.
One of my favorite things in this book is how the come of age story is told through the perspective of becoming Scela. Both girls underwent the procedure for very different reasons, yet they both have to struggle to balance what that makes them. The question of who they are versus who they were and how they both fear losing the core essence of their humanity made for a very compelling storyline in both narrations.
Through Aisha and Key we experience not just the change of merging with machinery and intelligent AI, but we also explore the idea of sharing a hive mind; with all the complications and struggles that would bring. This is yet another layer of a complex examination to the discovery of self. Skrutskie uses this sharing of the minds to show how each girl creates boundaries within themselves and comes to terms with how to set boundaries within their team. I loved how we got to know both girls both from what they shared, and from what they kept hidden.
While there is a lot of diversity in this book, it is understated. There isn’t a romantic story line, which makes sense, since one of the main characters is aroace. The conversation around skin color and sexuality was not a focus of the characters, though it is mentioned as each character is introduced to us. The more outspoken diversity was shown through faith, as one of the main characters is very religious. She prays, wore a head scarf prior to her transition, and continues to struggle with her faith though she is part machine. Again, this question of humanity is raised through her faith and gives yet another layer to that topic.
There are a number of brutal scenes in this novel. It isn’t light on the horror that this society is fighting through. The chapters describing the transition are fairly graphic, and there are numerous fight and death scenes dealing with describing acts of terrorism that Skrutskie does not paint lightly. There is also a fair amount of swearing throughout the narration and dialogue. This is YA, but clearly is intended for a more mature reader.
Fans of science fiction will quickly fall in love with HULLMETAL GIRLS. Skrutskie brings elements of dystopian story telling and merges them into classic space opera plot. This novel, while coming in at only 311 pages, is epic in scope. It tackles huge questions in easily digestible bites, making this book perfect for YA readers looking to get into more serious science fiction.