on 5 November 2012
There is some fabulous world-building in this book. Hurley is a master of the art of saying just enough. I was never left confused or bewildered about what was happening, and yet I felt like I was exploring Umayma and learning new things through-out the whole story. The magic/tech system, in which certain people have a hereditary gift for controlling insects or shape-shifting, was inventive and well-used.
At its best this novel reminded me of Le Guin's 'The Dispossessed'. Hurley's planet, Umayma, has several societies with radically different social structures, ranging from a matriarchal society in which men are little more than cannon fodder, to traditional patriarchal societies where women must submit to their husbands, with others are varying stages in between. Hurley compares and contrasts the different social structures pitilessly; each of her characters have been damaged in some way by the restrictions of the society that created them. And yet, this social science speculation is never heavy-handed, it always takes a back seat to the main storyline of the bounty-hunter and her team chasing down their next mark.
The book lost two stars from me because of the heavy noir influence. I'm not a big fan of noir and the heroine Nyxnissa is every bit as much of a self-serving emo as every other noir hero out there (I'm really not a big fan of noir, did I mention?). Although there were elements of humour in the novel, it wasn't enough to alleviate the constant 'grimdark' feel of the novel. I wish that I could have liked the characters more, but, in keeping with the genre, non of them were particularly sympathetic. The ongoing religious dispute between Nyx and Rhys particularly irked me; it wasn't a subtle conversation by any means.
On the whole though, I enjoyed this book. As well as the great world-building, the story is a good solid mystery with plenty of action and unexpected plot twists. Other reviewers have mentioned the parallels between Joe Abercrombie's work and this; I'd have to agree, if you like Joe Abercrombie then there's a good chance you'll like this.
The world of Umayma is divided between two warring superpowers, Nasheen and Chenja, and a whole host of neutral nations surrounding them. The nations are divided by religion, each preaching a different version of their holy book split along gender lines. Nyx is a native of Nasheen, a bel dame assassin sent out to do dirty undercover missions too dangerous to entrust to standard law enforcement. When Nyx gets in over her head, she ends up in prison and is eventually released as a free agent, a mercenary for hire. When the Queen of Nasheen gives her a special mission that can set her and her team up for life, Nyx jumps at it...only to find herself trapped behind Chenjan lines unsure of who is the enemy and whom she can trust.
God's War is the opening volume - volley may be a better term - of The Bel Dame Apocrypha. This is an SF take on the New Weird, set on a planet well over 3,000 years in the future where the natives practice different forms of Islam that have evolved from the various present-day versions of the religion, but along very different lines. Nasheen is a matriarchy where women have the power and do everything from ruling to fighting (either on the front or in boxing rings). Chenja is a more conservative and repressive nation where women are kept firmly in the home and not allowed much in the way of freedom.
The New Weird elements creep in the form of technology. For reasons not really explained in this opening volume, the colonists on Umayma does not use traditional power sources. Instead everything from lights to weapons to computer consoles are powered by bugs of varying size and capability. Special types of people, 'magicians', can manipulate these bugs for offensive and defensive purposes, sometimes to devastating effect. Also, there's other people who can transform themselves into animals, somehow. This isn't really explained either, although one revelation suggests it's a form of long-forgotten genetic engineering.
Kameron Hurley is also not an author particularly interested in exposition or infodumping. The novel opens in media res and leaves the reader scrambling to keep up with what the hell is going on. Chapters alternate between Nyx, a bel dame assassin who later turns independent contractor, and Rhys, a Chenjan refugee and magician who reluctantly teams up with Nyx for protection from her racist countrymen (and women), as well as employment. There are occasional chapters from the POV of other members of Nyx's team, but for the most part the novel is a two-hander alternated between these two very different characters and their worldviews. Rhys and Nyx are studies in contrasts, with him being religious, a man of deep conviction and faith, whilst Nyx is all but an atheist with occasional forays into depression and nihilism, whose answer to most problems is violence. Oddly, they complement one another well and most of the setbacks they face come about when they are separated.
Hurley is balancing a huge number of issues and ideas in this novel: religion, politics, gender issues, war, science and morality all play their parts against the backdrop of a mystery thriller plot. Occasionally the book staggers under the weight of these elements and bogs down. There's a few too many times when our 'heroes' are betrayed, captured and interrogated before escaping/being rescued, like an unusually violent episode of mid-1970s Doctor Who. Hurley's prose is razor-sharp and intelligent, but sometimes bogs down in quieter moments between the action into repetitive character introspection, giving a somewhat stodgy feel to some passages.
But when God's War catches fire, it catches fire like petrol thrown on a bonfire. There's a fearsome mixture of violence, attitude, politics, religion and action at work here, resulting in the most caustic and driven SF debut novel since Altered Carbon. But whilst that novel didn't seem to know quite what to do with its attitude and drive beyond fuel a mildly diverting techno-thriller, Kameron directs her writing skills here in much more productive directions. This is an exhausting, nerve-shredding and vital novel.
God's War (****) is an action-packed, smart book which occasionally stutters in its pacing and is a bit too often just confusing. But it also brims with attitude and verve and represents the arrival of a refreshing new voice in SFF. It is available now in the UK and USA.
on 23 April 2014
People who do not like the genre love to lump all Science Fiction into the same pile – massive space ships and stuff. That is just not the case. It can range from subtle alternative versions of our own Earth, to Space Sagas set around the orbit of a distant planet. Where sci fi gets its bad reputation from is when complex ideas are not explained clearly enough for the reader. ‘God’s War: Bel Dame Apocrypha’ by Kameron Hurley is one such book; a novel crammed with some great ideas, but also moments of strange confusion.
Nyx is a former Bel Dame, turned bounty hunter. Whilst once she followed orders to hunt and kill deserters from the long running holy war, she now does it for profit. When an alien arrives on the planet that could alter the fate of the war, she is amongst many people hired to find her. Can Nyx and her team find the bounty before their rivals can – and in a world so devoid of hope, is it not better to allow the enemy the chance to end the war, than continue fighting for no reason?
Using the word enjoy is perhaps a little too strong when discussing ‘God’s War’. There are certainly elements that I found very interesting as well as some action sequences that were well written. The book is set on a planet called Umayma where two sides have been fighting a holy war for decades. The majority of men are dead, so society is dominated by strong women. Women just like Nyx. The book does not concentrate on the Holy War, but uses it as an interesting backdrop. When Hurley hints at the history of Umayma you get glimpses of a very interesting and rich culture.
However, the book is not about this. It is instead about Nyx and her personal journey. As a character she is not that easy to get along with. I do not mind strong female characters, they are actually a preference of mine, but there is a significant difference between being strong and not being very nice. Nyx is not meant to be nice, that is the point of the book, but it does make following her adventures a little hard going at times. Hurley tries to paint the inner her, but I still was not enamoured with the outer.
There are other characters in the book, the magician Rhys being the most prevalent, but it is Nyx at the heart. Surrounding her further are some very interesting ideas; a world in which people are sunburnt so often that they have to be ‘scraped’ for cancer, sand cats, gene warfare. All interesting ideas, but painted very obliquely. Hurley does not tackle these elements head on, but drops in references to them throughout the novel to paint a richer tapestry. The problem I had was that these elements actually sounded slightly more interesting than what was going on.
By no means is ‘God’s War’ a bad book, just one that frustrates you by dangling ideas just out of reach. There are moments of heavy violence in the book that are very impactful and it is nice to see a novelist willing to sacrifice characters if it aids the narrative, you never feel that anyone in the book is safe. This is the type of book that would appeal to the fans of more traditional science fiction, but who also like a little grim violence in their works. Is this a large demographic, I am not sure, but I for one enjoyed many aspects of the book, just not all. Review originally seen at bookbag.co.uk
Umayma is a planet like none other – it’s a desert world, fuelled by insects and grubs, scorched by a cancer-burning sun and divided into two by a dirty war of chemical and biological weaponry that has lasted for centuries. The almost entirely female country of Nasheen is committing gender genocide. Its men are sent to the front at 14 years old, inevitably to die, but if they survive to the age of 40 they are allowed to return. Those who flee from the front carry, allegedly, disease and contagion. They are hunted by the Bel Dame, a sisterhood of bounty hunters, whose mission is to collect their heads.
Nyxnissa, or Nyx, is a Bel Dame herself until her little bit of private enterprise sets the sisters against her, along with almost everyone else in the bounty hunting game. In a world where pain and torture have been taken to new levels of refinement – replacement limbs are common (best not to think where they come from) – its safe to say their plans for Nyx are not pleasant. But when Nyx and her gang are hired by the Queen to hunt for one particular missing person, one who might be able to end the war, her chance to redeem herself quickly becomes a scramble for survival that is as dirty and brutal as the planet itself.
God’s War is an extraordinary novel. This is science fiction world building at its finest but what a world! It’s difficult to imagine a more revolting place – the bugs and insects everywhere, some as big as a dog or bigger. People get around in bakkies, pug-powered organic vehicles, lights are lit by glow worms, everything is powered by bugs. The ‘wise’ people of society are bug-controlling magicians while its entertainers are boxers. Not everyone is entirely human – some can shift shapes and those who do, the half-breeds, are prejudiced against. Sexuality is also blurred but while homosexuality is tolerated between women, between men it is not. Body parts can be sold – we meet Nyx just after she has sold her womb to gene-stealing pirates – and babies are born in litters. But, as the title suggests, this planet might seem Godless to us but not to its inhabitants. The people of Nasheen and its great enemy Chenja live according to a religion with a familiarity to Islam. Others we encounter are reminiscent of Christians. But religious codes and ethics have shifted and distorted, been forgotten.
Kameron Hurley has a powerful voice, no punches are pulled, violence and aggression are commonplace. She’s created a heroine in Nyx who is the epitome of toughness but I couldn’t help but grow to like her. We do see a more vulnerable side to Nyx despite all her best intentions to keep it hidden. Her efforts to keep her motley crew together are admirable and arguably more than they deserve but as they know it’s only her will to survive that keeps them alive.
God’s War gives the reader so much to think about, fascinating and repulsing by turns like no other book I can remember reading. It presents a merciless world and it’s a compelling tale from the first attention-grabbing line. There’s no choice but to keep turning the pages as quickly as possible. The story continues in Infidel.
on 3 June 2014
I read this because it was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award and because I like Sci Fi but don't read enough of it. This one took a while to get into, it's quite violent in a not-so-graphic way, although some of the torture scenes had me squirming (more because of my imagination, not because of the writing) but they always stopped before it became too much.
Nyx is a great heroine, mainly because she isn't a heroine, she's selfish, doesn't think ahead and is only alive because she is determined enough not to die. The world is at war, it was colonised thousands of years ago by alien races, two of which are fighting each other. This desert world seems uncompromising and suspiciously like the Middle East, both races believe they have God on their side (don't they always) but they actually follow the same religion, one more seriously than the other. There's hints of how the two races differ in their attitude to women, one covers them up and no eye contact, the other is a bit more free as all their men are on the front line.
After I'd started to understand the world and why insects seem to replace medicine, internal combustion and chemicals, I really started to enjoy this book. I didn't want it to end and I'm pleased to see Amazon have it's title as 'Bel Dame Apocrypha 1' meaning there's going to be more. It's a good stand alone book too, but I find once you've accepted the world and it's laws, then books 2 onwards are much easier to read.
Del Rey is a publisher that’s never been afraid to bring something not only a little different but something outside of a lot of readers comfort zones to the fore and whilst the UK arm is fairly new on the block, its one that has suck to the ideal’s of its American Counterpart in bringing this title to the readers attention.
Part Science Fiction, part fantasy and all wrapped up with a fascinating principle character, the book takes the reader on one hell of a adrenaline fuelled high octane adventure that captures your imagination within its pages. The prose is sharp, the dialogue something that works very well with the almost alien aspect of the title which when blended with an authorly writing style that the reader will find appealing all round makes this a book that deserves success. A great read.
on 29 June 2014
This series of novels takes place on the planet Umayma, a far-future colony world settled by peoples of varying ethnic and religious heritage. This widely diverse population is presumably descended from Earth -- but it's been so many thousands of years that their origin is no longer part of their cultural consciousness.
As one would expect, this has yielded a messy, contentious global community where various societal enclaves compete with each other for land and resources (not to mention just hating each other for religious and cultural differences). It's hardly surprising that one of the results of this is a centuries-long war between two countries -- for reasons neither side is really clear about any more -- fomented and provisioned by a wealthy third country in which the military-industrial complex is, literally, "making a killing".
The world's magic system is based on a type of macrotechnology similar to nanotech, where instead of intelligently-engineered particles, insects ("bugtech") are used to create all sorts of technology, from vehicles to forcefields to smart fabrics to security identification features to medical healing. Different insects provide different tech properties. Only a part of the populace has the inherited genetic ability to control the insects psychically; these are the "magicians". One of the offshoots of the bugs' medical uses by magicians is the ability to heal grievous injuries -- or even, under certain circumstances, resurrect those who have been killed.
Others on the planet have the genetically-inherited ability to shift form into different types of animals, to mimic inanimate objects, or to take even stranger forms such as mist. However, these "shifters" are feared and hunted to the death in some countries, and while being more accepted in others, generally tend not to reveal their true nature to anyone but their most trusted associates.
The main character, Nyx, is a Bel Dame: a government-sponsored assassin who accepts and executes "notes" (retrieval contracts, the "dead-or-alive" clause of which is often toggled to "dead") in exchange for lucrative payment. Or she was. It's quickly made clear that she has been excommunicated by her bel dame sisters (though the reason for this is not revealed at first). Now she survives -- barely -- by being a second-class bounty collector who no longer has government sanction and frequently operates outside the law, with the assistance of a motley team of desperadoes with varied skills, including a shifter, a magician, and weaponry experts.
Nyx is one of numerous bel dames and bounty hunters who have been given a note for an off-worlder recently arrived on a spaceship, whose intent seems to be trading an alien weapon to one of the warring countries in exchange for magic technology -- which will massively change the balance of power to one side. But as Nyx and her team compete with other teams of assassins to bring in the prize, it becomes apparent that there is more going on than has been revealed to the teams attempting to collect on the note.
It took me a little while to figure out of what this book reminded me, when finally it hit me: it's the same sort of world created in the series Firefly, one which might be projected from current real-world global politics, existing countries and religions, and human nature -- assuming certain outcomes of wars, and an interstellar diaspora resulting in a planet colonised by a multitude of cultures.
This novel is not "easy, fast reading". The author begins the story "in media res" (in the thick of things), and does not engage in a lot of infodumping to explain what everything is and how the world reached its current state. Instead, these details are gradually revealed through the action and the character interaction.
However, the book is intensely interesting -- and it does reward the reader with some resolution of mysteries at the end.
One of the critiques I have read of these books is the same as I have seen for Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice: that the protagonist is unfeeling and unemotional, and it is difficult to empathise with or care about the character.
I would firmly disagree with that assessment. While it is true that Nyx is a tough, hard-bitten and somewhat embittered character, as with Ancillary Justice, we gradually gain a great deal of insight as to her thoughts and motivations -- and we come to understand a great deal about her character from the reactions of the people around her, who develop an intense loyalty for her despite the apparent ambivalence of their feelings about her.
For those who would prefer a little more orientation, the author has created a Godswarbook wiki at Wikispaces (a Google of those two capitalised words will provide the URL). This provides an excellent resource for resolving confusion or answering questions about the world (for instance, rather than meaning "beautiful woman", "Bel Dame" is an evolution of the Hebrew word for a collector of blood debts).
This is gritty, not pretty, science fiction noir done exceptionally well -- both in God's War and in its sequels, Infidel and Rapture.
on 7 February 2013
Excellent world building by the author and certainly a dark, gritty read with hardly any good guys. The main protagonist Nyx chops peoples heads off for a living and she's either captured, getting tortured or killing someone in a befitting manor.
Nyx is not a particularly endearing character but you have to take a keen interest in what she and her crew get up to. Although a fairly short book compared to most these days I zipped through it as it is a riveting read.
The magic / tech in the novel is unique I certainly haven't come across anything similiar. Readers should be forewarned there is a great deal of cursing, sex and violence around. Nyx doesn't care which sex she beds, so long as it helps her accomplish her end goals as a bounty hunter. She lives a brutally unforgiving and godless life, as other characters in the book have said, and makes no apologies for it. Her world and her life choices demand it.. Hurley somehow manages to bring empathy to her plight. In the end, it was evident she was still very much a human being.
on 2 October 2012
(Review cross-posted from my blog, The Lightning Tree: [...])
"Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert."
From the very first words of God's War, Kameron Hurley plunges us into the raw desert world of Umayma and throws us in with her sharp-witted, dirty-mouthed protagonist, Nyxnissa so Dasheem (a.k.a Nyx). What follows is a gritty, adrenaline-filled ride that isn't scared to careen outside the box. Science fiction mingles with fantasy as well as a heavy dose of weird - a combination that will appeal to fans of all or any of those genres, and especially to readers looking for something different, dark, and daring.
One of the things that stands out most about the novel is its departure from the Western-inspired settings and cultures that SFF seems to gravitate towards. With God's War, Hurley tears us off this well-travelled course, depositing us instead on the war-torn planet of Umayma thousands of years from now. This is a world first and primarily colonised by Muslims (though Hurley never mentions the religion by name - or, at least, not by its present name). In the ensuing years, various nations have formed on the planet, notably Chenja and Nasheen, whose different forms of religious practice have propagated a centuries-long war. Still ongoing, it is this horrifying conflict - fought with deadly chemical weaponry and organic technology - that serves as the backdrop and incitement to the novel's action. Conflicting loyalties, religious disagreements, and societal differences are crucial to the characters' motivations, relationships, and decisions.
The result is a complex, well realised - if extremely grim - creation. God's War is certainly not for the faint of heart. Umayma holds horrors besides the war: with giant insects swarming about and sunlight so intense that it causes cancers, the characters are beset with trials left, right, and centre. But it's not all doom and gloom; Hurley's worldbuilding also makes room for some extremely nifty concepts. The combination of insect-fuelled technology, shape-shifters, and `magicians' who run boxing gyms and can reconstitute human bodies is heady and ambitious. What's more, it works.
The characters, too, are a varied and potent mix. First up is Nyx, a Nasheenian, and one of a government-funded group of assassins known as bel dames. It's their job to hunt down men who flee from the front or dodge their drafts, and to punish such deserters with death. Nasheen is hard-eyed in its wartime politics: the men are shipped off to fight at 14 and are not permitted to return until they're 40, if they return at all. Nasheen, therefore, has grown into a state governed and dominated by women. Conservative gender politics have gone out the window; women are not required to wear the hijab and are anything but submissive. Indeed, men are considered `the weaker sex' - Nyx, speaking of her front-line service, refers protectively to the `boys' who served under her.
In contrast to Nasheen, Chenja is a pious nation that retains its conservative religious dogma. There, men still dominate while women are expected to remain in a submissive role.
Building a far-future world inspired by a modern-day religion not the author's own is, you might think, a recipe for disaster. However, I'm pleased to report that by dint of extensive research, powerful empathy, and consummate skill, Hurley avoids the many pitfalls that God's War may have pitched into. The author does not judge either of her fictional nations; neither is demonised, nor upheld as perfect - far from it. Instead, Hurley uses her diverse characters to explore the nations' conflicts and frictions in small-scale, nuanced ways. Rhys, for example, acts in many ways as a foil to Nyx. He is Chenjan, a male `magician' whose ability to control insects (via some not-wholly-explained deployment of pheremones) makes him invaluable when it comes to operating the organic tech of Umayma. To Rhys, Nyx is a brazen, `godless' woman; to the atheistic Nyx, he is a self-righteous chump who needs to grow a stronger backbone. Their bickering provides some great (and much-needed) humour in the novel, while their increasing respect and liking for one other affords us some of God's War's most heart-rending moments.
But Hurley's novel does not only explore the tension between Nasheen and Chenja; its scope is broader than that, and indeed it's impressive how much detail Hurley manages to cram into one book without it becoming overwhelming. On Nyx's team there is also Khos, a shape-shifter from a neutral country called Tirhan. Evolved from some kind of biological oddity unique to Umayma, Shifters are accepted by some, treated with suspicion by others. And then there is Hurley's inclusion of homo- and bisexuality. Umayma's various countries and religions have different takes on these relations. Nasheen accepts homosexual relations between women while outlawing those between men `for no better reason that that it made people uncomfortable'; in Tirhan, men and women are segregated and men are encouraged to satisfy their desires amongst themselves. Once again, Hurley portrays the factions warts and all; indeed, one of God's War's major themes is the fact that no one side has it all right.
It is this realisation that creates the overarching tension behind the main narrative. For when Nyx is sent after a woman from off-planet who may have the means to end the Nasheenian-Chenjan war - but only to one side's benefit - she must decide which course to take. But only if she can keep herself and her team alive for long enough to find the cursed target in the first place...
Hurley's writing is sharp and clean. Despite the complexity of her world, she does not indulge in info-dumps. Instead, the reader is given information about the world as and when they need it, and not before. Like the characters, you're expected you to fend for yourself (as it were), putting the pieces together as you go. I expect some readers might not like this - mileage varies, after all - but, personally, this is how I like to experience a science fictional world: as a traveller, an explorer.
Hurley also has an eye for irony and detail - often unpleasant, sometimes dryly amusing. It is this injection of humour that really vitalises the book, with the wit and snark of the characters helping to offset the novel's more depressing moments. Nyx always gives back as good as she gets, and the secondary protagonists are also very sympathetic despite their various flaws. Rhys is the best example here - despite his somewhat judgmental opinion of Nyx, he is a gentle soul and probably the most easily likeable of the main bunch.
The bad guys, on the other hand, are truly terrifying. Hurley does not pull punches and, accordingly, neither do they. Rasheeda, in particular, gave me the shivers. I will be having nightmares about white feathers and snickering. (You'll see what I mean... Oh, you'll see...)
Other reviewers have pointed out a bit of a pacing problem in the novel - i.e. that the beginning section was rather slow, and that it takes a while for the main storyline to kick in. I suppose that's true, but I honestly didn't think this was a problem whilst reading. For me, the beginning section gave a solid grounding from which the novel then took off in the second part. The pacing really ramped up, and the ending certainly didn't disappoint: God's War finishes with a stirring, action-packed climax. Indeed, in the final quarter I couldn't turn the pages (OK, click the pages... I have a Kindle edition) fast enough.
God's War is the first book in a trilogy - Hurley's wonderfully named `Bel Dame Apocypha' - but it wraps up well and can be enjoyed as a stand-alone (in case you're chary of plunging into a trilogy right now). As for me, I'm curious to see where Rapture will take me... if also a little nervous! But what is SFF for, if not to take us places we never expect to go, force us out of our comfort zones, and show us things beyond our own imaginings...
on 11 November 2015
This book has possibly the best opening line I can ever remember reading, and the relentless sense of place and time that line evokes continues throughout the story. The main character Nyx is a horrible person but she is so compellingly realised you can't help but find yourself on her side as you follow her through this awful, warn-torn mixture of Iraq and Mos Eisley.
This definitely isn't conventional SF and feels more like fantasy in places, with an intriguingly ambiguous line between magic and technology. If bloodthirsty bounty hunters and blurred moral boundaries are your thing, you have to read this!