Set in the near future, America as we know it has been irrevocably changed by war, natural disasters and a devastating man-made virus. Old tensions between the north and the south, reignited over the issue of fossil fuels, lead to a war that spans decades. Sarat Chesnut is just six years old when the Second American War breaks out, but she and her family are changed forever by the horrors that it unleashes. As she grows up, Sarat is drawn deeper and deeper into the shadowy world of the militant resistance and splinter groups that are determined to do whatever is required to achieve their goals.
Omar El Akkad describes an America that has been torn apart by civil war. In the south, refugee camps become permanent homes for those displaced by bombs, violence and the changing, inhospitable landscape. Efforts on both sides to reduce tension generally end in failure. Young people grow up and are recruited into increasingly radical militant groups, determined to defend their home against all the odds.
Sarat is one of those young people. Faced with poverty, displacement and loss from an early age, she is drawn into playing an important role in the resistance. As readers, we’re powerless to do anything but watch as she is shaped by the world around her into an instrument of war. As she becomes more and more immersed in this world, the consequences have a huge impact on her personally.
Sarat isn’t a character that is particularly likeable or sympathetic, and there were many occasions when I disagreed with her actions, but her motivations were clear to see. Her family is torn apart, and all she’s left with is a desire for revenge and a powerful sense of cultural identity created by a group of Southern states desperate to break away from their perceived oppressors in the North.
There are some very clear parallels drawn with examples of war and violence that we see in the world around us today. The American war is portrayed as an endless cycle of self-perpetuating violence, driven by a group of people wanting to be separate from their parent state, the misuse of authority and a vicious cycle of retribution and hatred.
This is the type of science fiction I like best. It imagines a future which is entirely possible, especially given the tensions in the current political climate. This makes the scenes that play out in American War even more terrifying. It raises both questions and stark warnings that remained with me long after I finished the book and that still sometimes flash into my head when I read the news. Overall, I thought it was really well written and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.