Review: God’s War, by Kameron Hurley

9359818>>Published: February 2011

>>Finally got around to it: January 2015

Rhys took a step away from her, to give himself some room. He was angry at her again, angry about this, about all of it. He wanted to find some way to tell her why he was angry, to explain it, but she tended to believe that every conversation involving strong emotion was full of words and resolutions that were not meant, as if he were a raving drunk. She saw every stated emotion as an admission of weakness.

“So where are we going, Nyxnissa?” he asked.

She spit sen on the garage floor. “The morgue,” she said.

Rhys closed his eyes and prepared himself for the horror. The last eight years had been an unending nightmare, starting with his flight across the desert. And it will end with my flight back into the desert, he thought. The globe the queen had given them had included a detailed summary of what she was willing to pay them in return for Nikodem—alive or dead. Nikodem, the alien with the big laugh. He had known her immediately upon seeing her stills but was uncertain about how he felt about hunting her. She was just an alien, and the sum to bring her in—even split five ways—was indeed enough for all of them to retire on. If they completed this note, he could leave Nyx, and this bloody business, forever.

He had no idea what he would do, after.

When he opened his eyes, Nyx had gone.

***

Rare is the character who just fucking leaps off the page, fully formed, like Nyxnissa so Dasheem—Nyx for short. Her page one introduction in God’s War:

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 Jaks hit the floor like an antique harem girl.

And it only gets more badass—and brutal—from there.

The first entry in Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha, God’s War takes place on the engineered world Umayma, which is in the midst of a centuries-long war with seemingly no end in sight. What started the war isn’t the point—it’s the world that has developed around it, because of it, that matters here. The economic and militaristic systems that have been created, and the regimes that reign supreme—these are what serve as the backdrop for this vicious, impeccably crafted story.

Which is Nyx’s story, to be precise. A disgraced former bel dame—a government assassin who survives performing decapitations for cash—Nyx now earns her living as a mercenary of sorts, with a small team at her disposal. When she’s given a note from the Nasheenian queen setting a bounty on an alien named Nikodem, Nyx and her team—including the shifter Khos and the Chenjan magician Rhys—quickly find themselves pulled into an even more dangerous game than any of them had anticipated, one involving interstellar gene pirates, illegal genetic breeding between bugs and humans in an effort to create unstoppable weapons—shifters and magicians of their own design—and potentially rogue bel dames with a serious hurt on for Nyx.

While God’s War is undoubtedly Nyx’s story, Hurley effortlessly shifts perspectives throughout, giving us clear views—and reasons to care—about every member of Nyx’s team. However, it’s the magician Rhys who gets supporting-actor billing in this tale. Rhys is Nyx’s moral compass—or the closest she has to one, at any rate. As a Chenjan amongst Nasheenians, Rhys is often regarded in public with distaste or mistrust. The relationship between the Nyx and Rhys is a reflection of the dichotomous world Hurley has crafted, split between Nasheen, which is matriarchal and relatively agnostic/atheistic in structure—and significantly more militaristic—and Chenja, a male-dominated society with strict theocratic structures governing their way of life, and an overt subjugation of women.

There’s so much more to the world of God’s War than the little I’ve written above. Hurley’s universe is three-dimensional in a way so many authors simply can’t or don’t achieve. For every creation, for every idea, she explores the possibilities—the benefits and ramifications therein. It’s not enough to simply have shapeshifters and bug-wielding magicians as races and classes unto themselves; Hurley has developed a believable—and nauseatingly realistic—social hierarchy in which the shifters are forced to shield their gifts or risk prejudicial treatment, in which religious devotees like Rhys are repeatedly mocked for their beliefs, and in which the bel dames—appearing out of nowhere like demonic spectres with a flair for torture—are afforded the utmost authority.

And speaking of the bel dames: Rasheeda. Goddamn what a terrifying character. In her brutality, and her willingness to go to any length to achieve her goals, Rasheeda embodies what’s most unsettling about the bel dames—that they are forever locked in a long con, strategically weighing out all scenarios until they are either in their favour, or under their thumb.

Hurley is a master at kinetic world building. Everything in God’s War exists without needing overt justification or long drawn out explanations. The various elements piece together in a way that feels lived in, and not merely constructed out of a greatest hits package of hard sci-fi odds and ends. It’s all very smart and done on the fly, forcing the reader to either acclimate and keep pace or get the fuck out of the way.

Beyond the systems that have been put in place, Hurley’s plotting also excels. The novel is like the best of heist/criminal underworld narratives, with backstabbings and double crosses at every turn, but all filtered through an intricate, embattled, occasionally twisted, otherworldly lens. The plot never stalls, never really falters. Hurley delights in continuously turns the crank, ratcheting up the tension at every turn, and when you don’t think it can get any worse it gets fucking worse.

Though I’m sure it’s pretty obvious, I’ll spell it out anyway: I absolutely fucking loved this book. I had to search high and low for my copy—and in the end resorted to ordering the trilogy online—but it was worth it, and I encourage others to do the same. Highly recommended.

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