American War by Omar El Akkad
Published April 4, 2017
Although it probably isn’t something I would have picked up at all had my book club not been reading it, I had high hopes for Omar El Akkad’s American War nonetheless. The premise, of a Second American Civil War over oil in a near future ravaged by rising sea levels, is interesting, particularly in the current U.S. political climate. Unfortunately, while the details of this imagined future are portrayed convincingly by the author, the broader world-building is so half-formed that the gaps in logic erode any credibility. The result is a book that reads less like a tragedy about hate, division, and the impact of war on the average citizen, and more like an interesting, but not at all believable, fantasy.
After her father is killed in an act of terrorism and she is displaced from her home by the nearby fighting, protagonist Sarat comes of age in a refugee camp (“Camp Patience”) where she sees friends and family killed and experiences loss. Her brother is swayed by propaganda to become a child soldier, but Sarat’s intelligence, hulking physique, even as a pre-teen, and her circumstances make her prey for the older and immensely creepy (from the reader’s perspective) Albert Gaines, who grooms her to be a more deadly and specialized weapon. Realizing that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, he plies her with caviar and even literal honey, and feeds Sarat lies designed to make her hate the North.
Sarat’s situation is sympathetic, although the second half of the book (without spoiling too much) veers more into ‘cool motive, still murder’ territory. Obviously the reader hates how sleazy Gaines manipulates a young girl, in effect ruining her life and the lives of so many others, but the pity I felt was almost abstract in nature. I understood Sarat’s actions, and yet I never connected with her enough to make this novel the tragedy it wants to be. Unfortunately Sarat is also El Akkad’s best developed character. None of the secondary characters were more than surface deep. In a book like this, which is ostensibly supposed to show the devastating impact of both war and climate change on the average citizen, a lack of characters to identify with and form a connection to takes away from the message.
My biggest issue with American War is that it’s just such a shallowly constructed world. In the first 20 pages of N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky I got more world-building than there is in the entirety of American War! It’s difficult to put my finger on why that is, but I think the answer lies in the fact that El Akkad is so wrapped up in the details of his world – what the characters eat in Camp Patience, the treatment of prisoners in Sugarloaf Detention Facility, and even the inspiration behind the South’s flag – that he neglects the bigger picture.
Part of the problem is the timeline El Akkad has chosen for his book, which takes place between 2075 and the early twenty-second century. My ability to suspend disbelief is pretty strong. I love science-fiction and fantasy and I have never once questioned when a characters bursts out into song randomly in a special musical episode of a show or in a Broadway production, but I just couldn’t get past how incredibly implausible the entire world order is in this book. My grasp on African history and politics is limited at best, but the idea that in 58 years the various nations of North Africa have put aside their differences, formed a republic known as the Bouazizi Empire, and are (along with China – now that I believe!) the world’s superpower is difficult to wrap my head around, especially since there’s virtually no explanation given for how this has come about. I don’t remember El Akkad mentioning what happened to the present-day economic powerhouses, such as countries in Europe, Asia, or even in nearby Canada, to take them out of the running. In fact, considering the author lived in Canada for more than a decade, and the length of the border, it’s an odd thing to leave out. The lack of detail about the shape of the rest of the world is a particularly egregious oversight because the narrator of the book is a historian!
Although it’s a primary driver in the South’s separation from and subsequent war with the North, there’s also limited background given as to how the South can be the only ones still using fossil fuel. With obvious comparisons being drawn to the events and geographical divisions of the Civil War, and with a biracial protagonist, I also found it incredibly odd that race plays so small a role in American War.
Ultimately American War was a great disappointment to me, and certainly the worst of the few books I read in August. The author’s writing style I generally liked, finding it descriptive without being over-the-top, and the details are rendered with care, but the lack of broader context made it difficult to suspend my disbelief and I didn’t connect with any of the characters.