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...