book review: American War by Omar El Akkad


AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad
Knopf, April 2017

It’s hard to say where exactly Omar El Akkad went wrong with American War, because on the surface, this appears to be such a well-constructed novel. El Akkad ties in the story of our protagonist, Sarat, with his imagined vision of a second American Civil War in a way that’s comprehensive and undeniably steeped with tragedy. The world building in this novel is immense, with various news articles scattered like historical set pieces throughout the narrative. But when you look closer, there are too many gaping holes.

What about the current social climate in America, with all our institutionalized racism and police brutality, suggests that we’re moving toward a post-racial, colorblind society? How can El Akkad draw so heavily on the first American Civil War for his narrative and completely ignore the question of slavery and racism? How can the South continue to use fossil fuels when the rest of the country no longer does? How did the Mexican annexation of a large region of the U.S. come about? How on earth did every country in the Middle East come together in the span of about fifty years (?!?!) to form a republic?

These are just a few of the questions American War left me with. Maybe they’re not the point. But I can’t help but to feel like a novel which goes to such great lengths to set the stage for this future-alternate history needs to be able to provide the reader with satisfactory answers.

My second issue with this book is that it’s dull, tedious, and downright boring. If I hadn’t been reading this for a book club, I would have strongly considered DNFing, which as you guys know, I never do. I just couldn’t bring myself to care about Sarat, who felt more like a caricature than a well-developed character in her own right, or about the background characters who littered the narrative without much depth or individual personalities.

I was really disappointed by this book. I thought that a novel about a second American Civil War would be difficult to read because of what a realistic possibility it is, but American War was never able to convince me that it was anything other than highly imaginative fiction. Maybe I could have forgiven that if the plot or characters held my attention, but they didn’t. It was such a relief to finish this.

5 thoughts on “book review: American War by Omar El Akkad

  1. The book did indeed strike me as being set in a post-racial society, but I’m only on page 50 so I really thought El Akkad would dig deeper as the book went along. Very disappointing to see that he doesn’t. I completely agree with you that this worldbuilding makes no sense whatsoever.

    As I’m still struggling with this book and absolutely dreading it (yesterday I tried to read it but I ended up switching to War and Peace!), and your review indicates it doesn’t get any better, I think I’m gonna DNF this. I haven’t DNFed a single book this year and I was hoping to keep that streak going, but alas, this book is so dull and lifeless that I simply can’t deal with it any longer!

    What does happen, in the end? What is the point? I can’t seem to figure out the plot; the summary says Sarat becomes “an instrument of revenge” or something but I’m not sure what that means.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The fact that Sarat and her family are half black, half Latino suggested to me that race was going to play some kind of role in this story, but it never comes into play at all, and it strikes me as incredibly lazy (but also sort of strange, since El Akkad isn’t white? Why would he choose to frame this society as post-racial when he must realize how much of an impossibility it would be to get to that point within this century?)

      Ugh I’ve gotta go pack a hundred boxes, but I’ll message you in a bit and let you know how it ends. I don’t want to post it here because spoilers, but… you are 100% doing the right thing in DNFing. I guess it gets A BIT better at the end, but not enough to justify slogging through that whole thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. While overall I enjoyed it, I can totally see your points. Sarat was one dimensional, and we didn’t get nearly enough history or information about the rest of the world for it to make sense with out some suspension of disbelief. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I like when people who had different experiences with a book can still find common ground, haha. It’s one of those things where I would have been a lot more lenient in my assessment if we either had three dimensional characters or thorough, comprehensive world building, but the fact that we didn’t get either ended up really disappointing me. I had really wanted to love this!


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