Review: Infidel, by Kameron Hurley

infidelcov.final.indd>>Published: October 2011

>>Finally got around to it: February 2015

“Why’d you want to bomb out Mushtallah?” Eshe said.

Nyx shot him a look.

“Why not?” Alharazad said. “It’s a wasteland of corruption. You think the bel dame council is power hungry, you should spend some time with the First Families. Soft, fat, rich—can’t wipe their asses without somebody around to tell them what hand to use.”

“Firsts don’t bomb cities. Bel dames do,” Nyx said. “You’ve taken rogues before.”

Alharazad puffed away. “You making up your own notes now?”

“I’m working for Nasheen,” Nyx snapped.

“You need to kill ideas, girl, not people,” Alharazad said. “The council’s been hooked on the idea of running the country for a good long while. We used to do it, back in the wild days. Back when the whole world was like this.” She waved her hand at the dusty landscape beyond the windows.

“I’m a bloodletter, not a politician,” Nyx said. “I just take off heads.”

“Do you now?” Alharazad snorted. “If that was so, the Queen would have told me you were coming. No, this isn’t about a head, is it, girl?” She put down her pipe and fished around in her vest. She pulled out a marijuana cigarette. “You follow an idea, too. You believe the Queen is the rightful ruler of Nasheen. You don’t believe as the Tirhanis believe, that the absolving of the Caliphate was an affront against God.”

“I don’t believe in God,” Nyx said.

Alharazad pounded a fist on the table. The flatware shuddered. Soup slopped over the side of Nyx’s bowl. The bel dame’s face twisted into an angry grimace. “Don’t say that shit in my house. You want a bug swarm to pick you clean? This isn’t the place to go cursing God.”

***

Sweet Jesus, this book punched me in the throat and stole my lunch money.

The second instalment in Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha, Infidel, returns us to the engineered world of Umayma, still consumed by a centuries-long war between the dichotomous Islamic proxies of Nasheen, a matriarchal, militaristic state with a strong atheist/agnostic undercurrent, and Chenja, a traditionally male-dominated culture with strict adherence to theocratic rule.

Picking up six years after the events of God’s War, Nyxnissa so Dasheem (Nyx)—the former bel dame with a heart of blood-drenched, gold-painted rock—no longer survives cutting off heads for the government or chasing down illegal alien gene pirates. Now at thirty-eight (practically ancient for a bel dame), Nyx ekes out a living working as a bodyguard for Ambassador Erian sa Aldred’s young daughter Mercia. Alongside her are new team members Eshe and Suha—a half-breed shifter and a merc, respectively.

After being attacked one day by rogue bel dames—who she mistakenly believes were after the diplomat’s daughter—Nyx finds herself and her team pulled back into the world she thought she’d left behind. Fatima, head of the bel dame council (and the woman responsible for Nyx’s expulsion from the order and subsequent incarceration at age twenty-four), reveals to Nyx a plot by the rogues to lead a coup against the Queen, and then proceeds to request her assistance in hunting down and extinguishing said rogues.

The prize for all Nyx’s hard work? The promise of reinstatement as a bel dame—and through that, her honour returned to her.

However, this journey isn’t to be undertaken lightly. Along the way, Nyx is faced with innumerable back-stabbings and threats to her wellbeing, including the actual loss of her life and the destruction of those nearest and dearest to her—not least of all being Rhys, her moral compass and point of attraction throughout God’s War.

Since the events of the first book, Rhys has managed to build himself a stable, quiet life with a wife, Elahyiah, and two young daughters, Laleh and Souri. His peace is soon shattered, though, first by Nyx’s arrival, and then by the unexpected return of one of the most feared bel dames introduced thus far: Rasheeda.

—And that’s where I’m going to leave things, because what happens once Rasheeda reappears in Rhys’s life serves as the turning point for the story—and also manages to kick the narrative from “brutal” to “just fucking vicious.”

Infidel is, unquestionably, a worthy follow up to the first volume in the Bel Dame Apocrypha. Hurley has taken the world and culture she so effortlessly established in the first book and layered it with an increased sense of history and ordered conflict. This is done in large part by bringing the bel dames, who were more ancillary spectres in the first book, and placing them front and centre here. To this point, Hurley employs Fatima and Alharazad as representatives of the new code versus the old, with others such as Rasheeda, Shadha, and Nyx used to fill the space between, illustrating the depth of the conflict within the council itself. It’s as if a government special forces team like SEAL Team Six started devouring itself from the inside while simultaneously challenging the existing government.

Beyond furthering the bel dames and their internal structure/culture, Hurley also does an admiral job advancing the relationships between Nyx and her former team members in believable, grounded ways. There’s certainly animosity between her, Khos, Inaya, and Rhys, but there’s respect, too, and a tactile sort of familiarity that comes from having been through hell and back together. The bad blood doesn’t just wash clean, but it fades a little after being put through a rinse enough times.

What I found most compelling about Infidel was in how willing Hurley was to upset the order of things—specifically the way in which she takes the first book’s moral grounding, Rhys, and put a literal blade to everything good in his life, undoing all the peace he’d acquired for himself and his family. And in his pain, Hurley reveals the hard truth of the Bel Dame Apocrypha: for Nyx to grow as a character, everything she touches, everyone she loves, must bleed.

That Infidel takes place so many years after God’s War is, I think, one of its strongest elements. Hurley hasn’t just created a world with these characters, but an entire set of cultures growing and changing organically. There’s an apparent sense of evolution off the page—that the world continues to change even after the last page has been turned. This is a function of the kinetic world building I mentioned in my review of God’s War—this world exists and we as readers are privy to just a small portion of a much larger canvas. However, the rest of the image exists and will continue to exist far beyond our limited scope.

This book is a love letter to intelligent, driven, hard-as-an-axe science fiction. It’s also a prime example of a sequel perfectly building on the world established by its predecessor. Infidel is a masterpiece of storytelling, and I cannot wait to start the final chapter of this trilogy.

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Review: The Devil You Know, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

Devil+You+Know>>Published: January 2015

>>Finally got around to it: February 2015

The stove light shone hard and white off the glass, bleaching it. I could see my own reflection, my own fridge and stove. One of my hands was full of spinach and I held it out in front of me with the fist tight and the raw leaves sticking out between all my knuckles. Where the faded, I could see the landing outside my window, a couple of solid black stumps. Boots. Black boots and legs. Someone out on the fire escape, looking in.

I counted in my head, waiting for the boots to move on, a friendly knock, something. Someone from upstairs, having forgotten his key. The boots stayed there. My breathing stopped and I squinted. The window shone a pale and cloudy version of my own kitchen: table, wall, desk, chairs, and under the stove light, a girl, staring. For a moment I didn’t recognize myself. I took two long steps to the window.

It can’t happen if you’ve imagined it enough.

My own long hair brushing my shoulders, the V of my sweater, my collarbone standing out white. In another yard, a cat or a raccoon screamed and the neighbor’s motion sensor kicked on. The outside lit up all at once.

The raccoon scrambling across the top rail of the yard fence.

The light held for a count of five. Long enough for me to see him there, only a foot or two from the window. Tall, black cap pulled down close, coat, boots, hands huge in black gloves. Eyes deep set. Face half in shadow.

Long enough for him to see me watching.

***

Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy.

In the early ’90s, the names of two of Paul Bernardo’s victims became almost as widely recognized as the man himself. Bernardo, also known as the Scarborough Rapist, along with then wife Karla Homolka, kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered French and Mahaffy, as well as Homolka’s younger sister Tammy. Nowadays, Bernardo and Homolka rank right up there with the likes of Robert Pickton, responsible for the deaths of a suspected forty-nine victims—all women from Vancouver’s downtown east side—as two of Canada’s most notorious serial killers.

Such is the backdrop for Giller-longlisted author Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s first novel, The Devil You Know. The story centres on Evie, a twenty-one-year-old reporter on the low rung of a Toronto daily newspaper in the winter of 1993. It’s during Evie’s tenure with the paper, fresh out of journalism school, that the Bernardo case swells and then breaks wide open. But while the details of the Scarborough Rapist’s true identity are gradually brought to light, another more personal investigation occupies Evie’s thoughts: the murder of her best friend Lianne Gagnon, eleven years earlier, by Robert Nelson Cameron—a man of many aliases and a disturbing Charles Manson fixation (as if a fixation on Charles Manson could be anything but incredibly warped and disturbing).

Lianne went missing on May 23, 1982, and was found twelve days later, in a ravine in Toronto’s east end. She’d been raped and strangled to death. Cameron, however, was never apprehended, and was long suspected to be dead. But “suspected” doesn’t gel for Evie, not when there may or may not be a shadow of a man appearing nightly outside her apartment, staring in through the kitchen window. And certainly not when there are still so many pieces of her past and her parents’ past that remain unanswered—pieces that might help her understand what happened to Lianne and why; pieces that are revealed as she is engulfed by the Bernardo investigation and all its associated awfulness.

While Evie is living alone for the first time in her life, she is not alone on her journey. At her side (and occasionally at her beck and call) is David Patton, whom she used to babysit when she was twelve and he was ten. They’ve been friends ever since, with an inkling of something more. However, David’s father Graham has always been a source of contention, and of mystery. And as Evie continues to unearth new and startling connective tissue linking her family and David’s to an alias of the man suspected of murdering Lianne, she begins to spin—to lose sight of what’s real as her overactive imagination plots against her.

In using the Bernardo case as its backdrop, The Devil You Know is instantly recognizable as a product of time and place. de Mariaffi’s style has sharpened considerably since the publication of her short story collection How to Get Along With Women, which I found to be well written but often economical to a fault—I struggled to connect to the emotional through-lines in many of its stories. Despite some early bumps, I did not have this problem with The Devil You Know.

Said early bumps have to do with quotation marks. Namely, there aren’t any. It’s a stylistic choice, of course, but it’s one I admit I’ve never been fond of. Even if treated as nothing more than a visual grammatical accoutrement, I find quotation marks serve a rhythmic purpose in storytelling; without them, I have often found a narrative feels markedly monotone and lacking in emotion. Clinical is perhaps the most apt descriptor. This was certainly the case for me in the early chapters of The Devil You Know, as I struggled to break through the narrative’s chilly exterior, to find something within Evie I could grasp onto.

However—and this is a big however—by the novel’s end I felt the stylistic choice was justified. Not only justified, but essential. There are moments in this book of genuine tension, where Evie’s safety and the veracity of her reality are called into question. When these incidents arise, the lack of quotation marks allow the danger to slip quietly into play, like a knife you don’t even realize is there until it’s already six inches deep in your side.

It’s in this approach that the borders between Evie’s reality and her imagination—her fears—thread together as one. And it’s in this matter-of-fact presentation, void of unnecessary melodrama, that events unfold with such unexpected heft. I was surprised, by the novel’s end, at how much my opinion on this matter had changed. It’s still a stylistic choice I take issue with more often than not, but this novel is a rare case study in how to do it right.

My complaints are minimal. There is some repetitiveness near then story’s end—as twice Evie enters into someone’s home, uninvited, only to have them return unexpectedly, which creates an awful lot of Hollywood-worthy panic. I found myself wishing the first instance of this hadn’t happened, as its existence somewhat lessened the danger I felt near the end, when it occurred a second time.

And to get really nit-picky for a sec, why, during the second home invasion, does she stop to search through the big box of potentially incriminating evidence in the confined space that places her quite literally in the worst spot she could be in? Why doesn’t our intrepid journalist simply take the items out of the enclosed environment to a safer, more secure place to then investigate at her leisure? Why did she not learn from the previous instance, in the narrative’s not-so-distant past, when she got stuck in the place she shouldn’t have been because she didn’t get out fast enough? This is Thriller Movie 101 stuff here!

Apart from those admittedly minor issues, The Devil You Know is an exquisite piece of entertainment. It’s a page-turner in the truest sense, yet despite its thriller DNA it manages to say quite a lot about the devils among us in everyday life—and the ones we create and foster ourselves, on the inside. To this end, its final notes are haunting and perfect.

The devil remains, exposed but free.

The First Bad Man, by Miranda July

21943074>>Published: January 2014

The next evening we did the entire DVD, in order. “Gang Defense” was the most confusing because there were two bad men and another man in all denim who didn’t want trouble. “Hey,” he said to the others. “This isn’t cool. Let’s scram.” Clee switched roles between the three men with no warning; I was constantly stopping to reorient myself.

“What are you doing?” she hissed. “I’m over here.”

“Which one are you?”

She hesitated. Until now there had been no overt acknowledgement of the video or that we were anyone but our own angry selves.

“I’m the first man,” she said.

“The one in denim?”

“The first bad man.”

It was the way she was standing when she said it—her feet planted wide, her big hands waiting in the air. Just like a bad man, the kind that comes to a sleepy town and makes all kinds of trouble before galloping off again. She wasn’t the first bad man ever but the first I’d ever met who had long blond hair and pink velour pants. She snapped her gum impatiently.

***

Artist, actor, and indie film director Miranda July has an audience.

I am not a part of that audience.

This is the quite simple realization I’ve come to having now read The First Bad Man, in which both a whole lot of things happen and also absolutely nothing at all happens.

The novel centres on Cheryl, an incredibly neurotic, tightly wound woman who works at Open Palm, a non-profit that began life as a women’s self-defence studio. At the outset, Cheryl is seeing a doctor for chromotherapy, to deal with her “globus hystericus”—a perpetual lump in her throat. She visits the doctor at the recommendation of Phillip, an Open Palm board member who Cheryl is more than a little obsessed with.

Phillip, however, is not remotely interested in Cheryl—he’s got his eyes (and penis) set on Kirsten, a teenager. And for some reason never really explained, Phillip requires Cheryl’s blessing before he can act on his paedophilic tendencies. A blessing he pursues, I might add, by constantly texting Cheryl, telling her about how he’s rubbing Kirsten through her jeans—but it’s okay, it doesn’t count because she didn’t orgasm.

And then there’s Kubelko Bondy, the never-not-ridiculous-sounding name Cheryl has given all the children she sees that she occasionally believes to be hers—not biologically, of course, but as “familiars” of a sort.

The novel’s “plot,” inasmuch as it has a plot, kicks into motion when her bosses’ twenty-one-year-old daughter Clee comes to stay with Cheryl, to get her life in order. Clee is the tornado that enters Cheryl’s life and throws everything into disarray. She’s territorial, abusive, and a self-described misogynist. It’s only when Cheryl meets Clee’s aggressiveness, acting out scenarios from Open Palm’s self-defence videos that a bond forms between the two women, based first in friendship and then, not so gradually, romantic love. Whether their bond makes sense is another question, as few if any emotional decisions in this book feel grounded by anything more substantial than a dice roll.

I guess that last point cuts right to the core of my issues with this book—that its affectations and seemingly random character arcs overwhelm all other aspects of it. Everything is so strangely matter of fact that not a single emotional turn has any resonance—it’s a mind map of character decisions and idiosyncrasies that connect because the author has drawn a line between them, but not because they actually do.

In an interview given for a project she was filming, July is quoted saying, “… my movies and really all my work is very much set in the everyday world with regular people…” Whether she believes this to be true or not, I find it patently false when being forced to describe literally anyone or anything that happens in The First Bad Man. This book doesn’t exist in a reality I know or understand; it is in a world of July’s own design, one so twee, so precious that it makes a Wes Anderson film resemble a WWE match. And in being so severely delicate, so far removed from any emotional grounding, July’s book quickly traverses from quirky to nonsensical.

 

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*See this rainbow unicorn butterfly kitty? It’s less delicate than this book.