Hullmetal Girls (young adult science fiction 311 pages) by Emily Skrutskie has been on my list of books I must buy ever since I heard about it several months ago on tumblr when something about asexual protagonists came up.
“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 maintain 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.”
What little information I had about this book basically centered on the fact that there were two main protagonists, both women, at least one was asexual, and it took place in space. That’s literally all I knew about the book before I purchased it. But since I am devouring most books with even the remote possibility of asexual protagonists, especially women, I made a note of this book. When I actually found it at my local Barnes and Noble after dinner several nights ago, I was absolutely astounded and naturally purchased the book immediately.
I didn’t start the book immediately, though, as other life concerns interfered rather heavily but I did have a lot of time waiting in a hospital on Monday morning so I figured that would be a great time to get some reading in. In retrospect, I’m quite happy that it was not me going in for surgery while reading the first several chapters of this book. The beginning of this book takes place where a lot of really painful and intense surgeries happen, many of them do not go well. Naturally, I shared my amusement with my friend who was getting ready to go into surgery. Now, I’m not a mean person, so don’t think that I told her what the beginning was about, but I definitely told her that I would not recommend this book as a pre-surgery book in the first several chapters.
The characters in this book actually admit their different sexualities, which is something I don’t think I’ve seen in print very often. There are a lot of characters whose sexuality is often implied in books I’ve read but it’s very rare to see the actual sexualities defined. On page 96, Aisha flat-out states she’s aroace, Woojin is pansexual, and Praava is heterosexual. Aisha is also strongly religious and her beliefs are very much a part of her. Seeing the balance of religion, sexuality, and technology was interesting for me, as I wasn’t expecting that kind of representation in a science fiction book with mechs.
This book has a very interesting social commentary, showing the perspective of a world with massive classism, poverty, privileged rich, and the illusion of freedom. I could see a lot of parallels in our modern world and the world within the Fleet. The rich felt entitled to live in luxury at the expense of the lives of those “beneath” them. Those who are working hard to take care of their families and live their own lives struggle every day just to survive. In a lot of ways, this book reminded me of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, where you have two factions fighting for control with the “normal” people stuck in the middle. Leadership on either side doesn’t really care about the cost of their actions and they are willing to sacrifice anyone except themselves for what they believe is the greater good, and also to prove their point to the “mindless masses”. The moral to the story in Hullmetal Girls, to me, focused a lot on being true to yourself, following your heart, and understanding that family doesn’t necessarily mean people with whom you share bonds of blood. You can find yourself sharing your life with people from all walks of life if you just give them, and yourself, a chance.
I really enjoyed everything that happened in space, especially the adventures required when travelling from ship-to-ship in the Fleet. Woojin was a very non-standard character and the unpredictability of his presence generated uncertainty and extra problem resolution for Aisha and Key, which I enjoyed. Aisha and Key had a very interesting interpersonal relationship arc. I appreciate how their personalities interacted and the individual growth required by each.
I can’t really say that this was a positive or uplifting book, as the content tended to be rather dark. I guess that’s the best kind of fiction, though, in that it forces us to look at ourselves in the mirror and see all those patchy, shady places that don’t react particularly well to sunlight. Books like this force us to see our world and the rampant corruption plaguing all our lives right now. Overall, I’m glad I purchased this book and I am likely to reread it in the future. I would probably rate the book as a solid three on my rating scale.
Skrutskie, Emily. Hullmetal Girls. New York: Delacorte Press, 2018.