"Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.
Drunk, but no longer bleeding, she pushed into a smoky cantina just after dark and ordered a pinch of morphine and a whiskey chaser. She bet all of her money on a boxer named Jaks, and lost it two rounds later when Jacks hit the floor like an antique harem girl."
That is a kick-ass entry to a story, if you ask me. Hang on, this is a long review.
This is...science fiction adventure noir, maybe? It's a world of (mostly) post-apocalyptic Muslims of varying degrees of recognizability, in which most technology is driven by insects. Yes. Also, the two major nations of the planet have been at war forever, and partly as a result of this women have come to dominate society. Men get drafted as boys and sent to the front--and women volunteer to fight, too. But on the home front, at least in the country where we spend the most time, women are soldiers and politicians and businesspeople and pretty much everything else. They're also brutal to each other--the main pastime seems to be boxing, and just about every woman we meet has some violent tendencies or history. This isn't a pacifist Hertopia kind of world.
That's one of the things I loved about this book--its bold creation of a world where women dominate, and where women are socially, physically, and in all other ways tough and capable. Setting aside the fact that this is a world where magicians use bug technology to repair amputations and mortal injuries, the women in this world are bad-ass. Or maybe they're just people. It's a sad statement that it's so unusual to read about women in roles that men would usually fill, kicking asses and getting their asses kicked--but it is unusual. And Hurley does a great job of making her women real.
I appreciated so many things about this book--that the dominant religious ideology was Muslim rather than Christian, that the main characters are almost all non-white, that our antihero Nyx isn't a stick figure, and that she doesn't stay pretty. There's a phenomenon in novels and movies that feature "strong" or "kick-ass" women (cf. Tomb Raider, Charlie's Angels, Kill Bill, Underworld, et al)--let's call it the "reasonable facsimile" phenomenon. It's when authors or directors decide they're going to capitalize on a trend provide a strong female role model--and they do so by casting a skinny white girl in a tank top, and telling her to look brooding. Usually the reasonable facsimile doesn't have a realistic or profound story arc, or much character development (if she's a secondary character she may be defined solely by a skill, like rock climbing), or much to do besides fake-fight guys who would kick her ass in real life, because she has wrists like twigs and has clearly come from the Fighting School of Pilates. Seriously, watching Michelle Rodriguez decline from her tough, meaty role in Girlfight to the dumb bullshit action stuff she does now...that's the reasonable facsimile tragedy, right there.
But anyway. I loved that this book doesn't dredge up the reasonable facsimile. Nyx, as a protagonist, is thorny and crude and rebarbative, she's physically large and strong, she carries weight both literally and figuratively. She has a full, complete character arc, a history, and (presumably) a future--since this is the first book in a trilogy. I admit I didn't follow all the political intrigue in this one, but that's me--I tend to read lightly over that stuff, and dwell more in the scenes. And it's possible that some of that explanation got a little convoluted, in an effort to propel us to the ending. I can forgive that, because the world of the book is so original and well-imagined, and because I liked the characters that live in it.
“Bugs, Blood and Brutal Women. All the best things in life.”
So was signed my copy of God’s War, by debut novelist Kameron Hurley. I entered an online contest to win a copy of the novel, now out, and was delighted that the author had taken the time to personalize it in this way. It was a good omen to start the book off.
God’s War is set during a perpetual war on Umayma, a distant planet in an indistinctly far future where two polities, each dominated by a rival descendant sect of Islam (never mentioned directly as the ur-religion). God’s War is the story of Nyx. Once upon a time, she was a Bel Dame, a government agent used to stop deserters, lethally if necessary. She lost that position on a bad job, and now scrapes together a living as a bounty hunter, having cobbled together a team of misfits to help her with her work. Primary and most important amongst these is the other main viewpoint character, Rhys. Rhys is a refugee from Chenja, the nation on the other side of the eternal war with Nyx’s Nasheen.
This hardscrabble existence for Nyx and her team gets a kick in the pants when the Queen of Nasheen makes an offer Nyx can’t refuse—find a missing person, and a rare one at that: a visitor from another planet who has slipped the custody of her Nasheen hosts. A person who might have the high technology that Nasheen or Chenja could use to end the perpetual conflict for good. And so starts a multi-sided scramble to find the missing offworlder…
The strong points of God’s War are three: world building, the characters and descriptive, tight prose that invokes and evokes her wonderfully visualized world.
World building: Interesting and real-feeling descendant forms of Islam, a dry and hostile planet, the strange and wondrous bugpunk technology and biotechnology. The lack of exposition may turn off some. There is plenty of world building, but a relative lack of anything resembling infodumping, and a lot of things are taken as is, with the bug-dominated “Bugpunk” technology being first and foremost. A lot of it is “handwavium” of the first order, and Hurley does not give us any real chance to get up to speed on it. It’s been a while since a novel truly has chucked me in the deep end. However, I found the experience invigorating and satisfying once I started to puzzle things out. Hurley has a strong and vivid imagination.
Well drawn and interestingly contrasted characters ranging from Nyxnissa, Bel Dame turned bounty hunter, to Rhys the foreign magician, the rest of her crew, and her opposition. Nyx doesn’t seem to know what she wants in life beyond her next piece of bread, but rather than vacillating or doing nothing, she is an active character, brawling, brutal, and bloody as she carves her way through the world. The other characters, too, have lesser well defined but still concrete needs and agendas, some of which are only revealed in flashback after we have seen them in action for a while. This slight non linearity forces the reader to pay attention.
Prose: Hurley writes to a well constructed third person viewpoint that mainly focuses on Nyx and her doings. The times where we break away from her or Rhys feel a little off to me, though, an almost unwelcome variation on the theme. Despite this, the alien natures of Umayama and the humans that inhabit it and their cultures are exceedingly well done. You can feel the heat, taste the sweat of the fighters in the gyms, smell the blood of vicious battle.
The style of the book, combined with the technology, gave me a Vandermeer New Weirdesque feel to God’s War, with the proviso that this is science fiction, even if Rhys is called a magician and just how things like his talent and those of the shapeshifters are not really explained.
This book is not for the squeamish. Right in the first chapter, Nyx talks about a hysterectomy, and the book does not soften from there. The protagonist gets tortured. People die. Fights and conflicts are messy, inconclusive, and exceedingly violent. Its all very vividly described but fortunately not to the level of “torture porn”
Blood, Bugs and Brutal Women. It says it all.
I, for one, am looking forward to the next Nyx novel, and what else Hurley is capable of beyond her vision of life on Umayama.
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missmea, January 13, 2011 (view all comments by missmea)
"God's War" immediately takes you to a very different world filled with the same problems as ours presented on a slant. Not only is this book an excellent and exciting read that I couldn't put down, it made me look at the world, both real and fictional, in new ways. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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Night Shade Books -
"Publishers Weekly Review"
by Publishers Weekly,
"Readers will be fascinated by the setting of this slow-starting but compelling far-future debut. On a planet settled by Muslims and ravaged by constant war and pollution, Nyx, a former government-sponsored assassin or 'bel dame,' gets by as a bounty hunter. Her assistant is the foreign magician Rhys, who can control the ubiquitous insects that drive the planet's technology. When the government asks them to hunt down an off-worlder who possesses technology that could end the war, they find themselves facing off against foreign agents and their fellow bel dames. Hurley's world-building is phenomenal, with casual references to insectile technology and the world's history that provide atmosphere without info dumps. Far too many pages are spent introducing the characters, but the story is highly engaging once it starts, and Hurley smoothly handles tricky themes such as race, class, religion, and gender without sacrificing action. (Feb.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
Some days, Nyx was a Bel Dame - an honored, respected, and deadly government-funded assassin - other days, she was a butcher and a hunter; a woman with nothing to lose. Now the butcher has a bounty to bring in. Nyx and her rag-tag group of mercenaries is about to take up a contract that will shake the foundations of two warring governments...
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