Rebel Sisters by Tochi Onyebuchi

Rebel Sisters by Tochi Onyebuchi, Razorbill (an imprint of Penguin Random House), 9781984835062, 2020 

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4

Format: Hardcover

Genre: Science fiction

What did you like about the book?  In this sequel to 2019’s War Girls, Onyebuchi returns to the story of Ify, the Nigerian orphan who’s now living in space and pursuing a medical career. Refugee children in the space colonies are slipping into comas, and Ify and her assistant, Grace, are sent back to Earth to see if they can discover the cause of the illness. Their chapters alternate with the first person narrative of a synth named Uzo, who is working with Ify’s former mentor Xifeng to restore memories stripped from survivors of the brutal Nigerian-Biafran war. As in the first book, the author uses science fiction tropes effectively to ask questions about war, forgiveness, and human nature. The world building in these books is quite stunning and thought-provoking. But despite the technological futurism, the author keeps a firm grasp on timeless questions: who gets to be considered human and how much red-blood is needed to earn that designation? What is the value of memory if it leads to internecine strife? Does a government have the right to act on citizens’ behalf and without their consent to preserve peace? Setting the story in Africa and having almost all the characters be people of color also makes the parallels to enslavement clear.  

Anything you didn’t like about it? As in the first book, some of the tech remains unexplored and confusing — what’s the difference between a synth, a cyberized, and an augmented human? This is not a criticism, but a heads up that the story is complex and the alternating viewpoints make for a demanding read. In particular, I found the synth Uzo’s evolving identity led me to a lot of Huh? moments. While the cover of the first book pictures a cool, tough-looking cyborg Onyii, this second installment features Ify in a diaphanous evening gown get-up, which I found totally objectionable. Nowhere in the book is Ify described as wearing anything but a doctor’s lab coat or a synthetic smart suit. Please give this girl some actionwear.

To whom would you recommend this book?  Although the first book can stand alone without this sequel, reading War Girls  is an absolute prerequisite for enjoying this one. I did really like this demanding and techie tale and would recommend it to readers who request hard science fiction with a dose of existentialism. The Nigerian setting and the geopolitical themes make it quite unique.

Who should buy this book? School libraries and public libraries. Although it’s billed as YA, I found it to be well suited to adult SF readers as well.

Where would you shelve it? In a high school, I’d put it in SF. In a public library, it could either go in the teen room or in a SF collection.

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? If you read the first and loved it, yes.

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: January 10, 2021


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