Author: Kameron Hurley
Genre: science fiction, post-apocalyptic
Length: 288 pages
Publisher: Night Shade Books (February 2011)
MY RATING: 4.5 stars
“Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.”
So begins God’s War, a tale of intrigue, war, and brutality set in the far-future world of Umayma where state-sanctioned bounty hunters keep the peace and young men die in a war, the cause of which no one knows. Three thousand years before the story begins, the planet was terraformed, incompletely, much of it remaining inhospitable desert. The human civilization that took root bases its technology on using bugs in almost every conceivable way. Motorized vehicles run on bugs. There are weaponized bugs of various kinds, and bugs figure into the diet of humans and other animals, long-distance communications, and so on.
The two warring nations, Chenja and Nasheen, are opposed on religious lines (both practice a form of Islam, with differing interpretations), and there are also racial differences between the two–Chenjans are darker skinned than their Nasheenian enemies, patriarchical, and religiously conservative. Young men in both societies go to the war front as soon as they are old enough and either return in body bags or once they’re old enough to retire from military service. As a result of the centuries-old war, the frontier between the two countries is contaminated wasteland.
The protagonists in God’s War in one way or another do not fit into the world as it is. In one way or another they are misfits, dissidents, and refugees. They are led by Nyxnissa (Nyx for short), a bounty hunter expelled from the bel dames for taking illegal side work. This organization of state assassins in Nasheen may or may not be named for the Keats poem (there is no mention one way or another in the book) but they are certainly all women without mercy, tasked with hunting down men who desert from the front and policing their own members. Typically, they cut off the heads off their marks.
Nyx settles into bounty hunting after her expulsion, but even so her former “sisters” continue to hound her. She tries to forget her past with strong drink and sex, but her scars run deep. Nyx is a woman of action–we only get glimpses of her past and sarcastic, sometimes hilarious commentary on the ragtag mercenaries who fill out her team. Briefly, there is Khos the Mhorian shifter who can assume the shape of a dog at will; Anneke, a woman younger than Nyx who is obsessed with guns; Taite, the team’s com officer who fled his homeland, in part because of his homosexuality; and Rhys, the Chenjan deserter who is a magician in Umayman terms–he can command bugs to do his will, though he is not all that good at it.
A lot of the tension in the novel comes from the interplay between hard-living Nyx and the pious, soft-mannered Rhys. And I can’t go on enough about how much I love that. Nyx notices his warm eyes and soft hands. There’s a bit of “will they or won’t they?” at least from her end. He’s conflicted in his POV chapters, while Khos (another of my favorite characters) just wishes she’d get sleeping with him over with and hire a competent magician.
What I love about this book are the character arcs, how all these damaged people become something like a family. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are some points where I had to put down the book and just process what had just happened. I really liked how characters who seem rather flat at first exposure become more complex and rounded as the book unfolds–slowly, with one detail placed just so, rather than longer digressions (the infamous infodump). It’s hard to explain how Hurley got me to fall in love with Khos, the womanizing shifter who frequents brothels, for example. Inaya, Taite’s pregnant sister, is another character who by the end I just wanted to see more of.
Most of the plot revolves around an dicey political situation involving an offworlder interested in bug technology and whose own technology could end the war. There’s also a lot of boxing and evading the bel dames and a rival team of mercenaries led by Nyx’s old mentor Raine. The boxing scenes are well done and fit into the broader world. And like a lot of small pieces of this war-torn world, Hurley uses boxing to represent some of the bigger problems–most boxers are women, since most men of fighting age are at the front, for example.
But while Nyx is working to find the missing alien scientist, and getting hurt–a lot–we learn her story and the stories of her team members, what they left behind in their respective homelands, why they left, how they got mixed up in a hot mess like this one. There are hints at the overarching plot, and Umayma’s history, along the way, but the reader stays just as much in the dark as Nyx and her team. They are small but important pieces in a bigger political game involving magicians, aliens, imams, and queens. In the end, she wants to stay alive, most days, finish the job, and get paid. And really that works. There are no long political discussions to fill the reader in on what the real powerbrokers are up to. I appreciated the fleeting glances, the feeling that something bigger is going on.
I should mention that the version I read–the US Kindle e-book edition–had some editorial problems. Not enough to ruin enjoying the book, but there’s some noticeable places where Night Shade dropped the ball. I found this frustrating because I have no other real complaints here. I normally wouldn’t mention it, but there are a few places where I got confused–the scene shifts to another location and it takes a little while for the brain to process that.
I recommend God’s War if you enjoy thrillers focused on a team of protagonists trying to solve a mystery before it gets them all killed. The worldbuilding, including that first line, came as a shock at first, a bit disorienting. Just go with it, and let the pieces slowly come into place. It’s a weird world, where bugs the size of small dogs wander the streets, justice comes in the shape of a bel dame, and some people can control bugs and others can turn into dogs. But somehow it all seemed normal a few chapters in.
And that’s one thing I liked about it. I really wasn’t experiencing a world I’d seen before in SFF. Some of the vocabulary is likely foreign to most English speakers, but the meaning is apparent from context (e.g., a bakkie is an automobile, a burnous is a hooded cloak). It all seems normal through Nyx’s eyes, so I quickly accepted the world as she presented to me, well not without some skepticism at times. Okay, so the cars run on bugs, birth control works with bugs. By chapter three, it all made sense somehow. Not sure how she did it, but it works.
I don’t recommend this book if you’re squeamish about violence–or bugs. It took me a few weeks to read, in small pieces, because frankly it is just that dark in places. The violence, including torture, never gets excessive or gratuitous, but Hurley never shields the reader from it. Given the world she’s created, I don’t see how she could have done otherwise and remained true to her characters.
This is a thoughtful piece of writing about religion, war, and politics, written in a post-colonial vein, where the scraps of reality are more important than trying to reconstruct the whole cloth. I recommend taking God’s War on its own terms. It’s a beautiful and horrifying story. But there’s a bigger message here about our time and all the possibilities that the future might hold for good and ill.
There are two more books in the series, Infidel and Rapture, and they are going on my list. If you enjoy this one, I recommend that you continue on, too, and see where Nyx’s adventures take her next.