Hullmetal Girls embraces teen angst in the form of bionic mech suits and the girls who meld with them to save humanity.
Aisha Un-Haad has been working hard as a janitor to take care of her two younger siblings, but when one of them falls ill with a deadly fever that’s sweeping through all the ships that make up the Fleet, she makes the decision to become Scela, a bionic super-soldier created to protect and serve the Fleet’s rulers. There’s no going back once her body is sliced and diced to make room for the mechanical parts that make up her new artificially intelligent “exo,” and her mind is welded permanently to its will and those of the other Scela in her squad. But it will all be worth it if she can advance far enough in the ranks to earn a salary that will keep her siblings safe.
One of the minds she finds herself melded with is that of Key Tanaka. Key knows she’s from one of the privileged front ships of the Fleet, but huge gaps in her memory prevent her from knowing what drove her to give up what must have been an easy life to serve as a glorified battle tank. Her only hope of figuring it out is finishing her training and gaining the trust of those who might be able to fill her in on who she once was.
Both of their goals seem to grow further and further out of reach as their squad flounders and fails at brutal training exercises — and it soon becomes clear that an even bigger threat is on the horizon, as rebels fight to seize control of the Fleet and the Scela are forced into battle regardless of their own feelings on the matter.
The thing that Emily Skrutskie really nails in Hullmetal Girls is all the nitty gritty of bodies being invaded by machines. So much care and thought has gone into every spliced muscle and metal port that it’s easy to visualize the cyborg monsters these teens have become, and really feel the pain and dysmorphia that they experience. Readers are along for the ride, from the horror of not being in control of your own body to the joy of leaping with superhuman legs.
The way Skrutskie has built the world of the Fleet is also compelling, with each ship containing one piece of the puzzle required to sustain a world’s worth of people as they journey through the stars for hundreds of years in search of a new home planet. It’s easy to hope that these ships will find a safe berth and to imagine them opening up, forming a new civilization on an empty world.
In some ways, the characters struggle to live up to the promise of the world. While Aisha and Key have distinct personalities and goals, at times their voices sound very similar as we switch from one point of view to the other. I often found myself flipping back to make note of which character’s name was at the beginning of the chapter, as it wasn’t always possible to tell their narrative voices apart.
Key in particular is somewhat lacking in personality, which is sort of built-in because of her amnesia, but her snooty and frustrated responses to everything made it hard for me to invest in her as a character, and her rivals-to-friends relationship with Aisha seems to turn on a dime. It doesn’t help that the other two members of their Scela squad, Woojin and Praava, struck me as being more interesting than Key — I wish we got to experience their points of view first hand, rather than through the mental bond that they share with Key and Aisha. But ultimately, who needs personality when you’ve got girls with badass robot suits plugged directly into their brains?
Hullmetal Girls feels like an evolution of the sci fi and dystopian works that have come before it — a little Ender’s Game, a little Hunger Games, a little Battlestar Gallactica, and a touch of “what if the Borg were teenagers and only partially assimilated?” Amazingly, it works, and feels like it’s honoring these influences rather than rehashing. Its strength is its commitment to the body horror concept, and the freshness of seeing familiar militaristic space opera shenanigans through the eyes of teenaged girls. I for one am ready to give them bionic strength and let them decide humanity’s future.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.