Thursday, March 29, 2012

Review: God's War by Kameron Hurley

God’s War by Kameron Hurley
Published :  Night Shade Books, 2011
Series : Book 1 of the Bel Dame Apocrypha
Awards Nominated : Nebula Award

The Book :

“Nyx had already been to hell. One prayer more or less wouldn t make any difference...

On a ravaged, contaminated world, a centuries-old holy war rages, fought by a bloody mix of mercenaries, magicians, and conscripted soldiers. Though the origins of the war are shady and complex, there's one thing everybody agrees on—There's not a chance in hell of ending it.

Nyx is a former government assassin who makes a living cutting off heads for cash. But when a dubious deal between her government and an alien gene pirate goes bad, Nyx's ugly past makes her the top pick for a covert recovery. The head they want her to bring home could end the war--but at what price?  The world is about to find out.”

This is Kameron Hurley’s first novel, and I mostly picked it up due to the Nebula nomination.  I didn’t realize beforehand that God’s War is the first of a trilogy, but I think it also works well as a self-contained story.  The second novel, Infidel, is already published, and the third is in progress.

My Thoughts:

God’s War is yet another novel that tosses the reader into a complex world with little explanation.  While this made the beginning a little confusing, I felt that there was enough information distributed along the way to eventually build a fairly comprehensive understanding of the toxic, dangerous world of Umayma.  Umayma is a far-future world that was colonized by humans many years in the past.  In an interesting twist, the advanced technology of the story is entirely dependent on bugs, and on the “magicians” who have the ability to program them.  The magicians, in addition to human ‘shifters’ who can transform into animals, are not really explained in God’s War, but it is implied that there is some origination story buried in the history of Umayma. The environment, distinctive technology, and the disparate ideologies of the colonist nations combine to make the world a truly fascinating place.

Though several other colonist nations are briefly described, God’s War focuses mostly on the oldest and most powerful, Nasheen and Chenja.  These two nations follow different interpretations of an Islam-based religion, and have been embroiled in war with one another for centuries.  Though they arguably follow the same religion, the two nations are wildly different in terms of culture and societal structure.  The never-ending war effectively results in a government-sanctioned slaughter of men, who often either die at the front or are killed for deserting.  The sharp gender disparity is addressed very differently in Nasheen than it is in Chenja, and I enjoyed seeing the different takes on how societal gender roles and popular views of sexuality might shift under these stresses.

The characters of God’s War seem very simple at first, but they are developed throughout the novel.  The story focuses on the former bel-dame Nyx (a Nasheenian government assassin tasked with executing deserters), her mediocre Chenjan magician Rhys, and the rest of her bounty-hunting crew. Nyx and her team are all fairly competent, but none of them are the best at what they do.  I felt like the team’s fallibility added to the tension of the novel, since they are often out of their depth and not at all guaranteed success.  Rhys and Nyx are the viewpoint characters for most of the novel, and, as a result, they are by far the most fully developed. Other members of Nyx’s team show up briefly as viewpoint characters later in the novel, giving them some much-needed depth.  The sudden switch to minor characters’ viewpoints felt a little clumsy, but I’m not sure how else Hurley could have given insight into characters that are so necessarily stoic and paranoid.

I loved Nyx as a protagonist, but I can see where many people might not.  She’s not exactly a sympathetic character—from another point of view, she could easily be the villain.  However, Nyx suffers from no delusions of moral superiority, and she typically considers her wellbeing and that of others with a certain cold practicality. Nyx is a very dangerous woman to be around, both due to the enemies she’s made and her own tendencies towards violence.  All the same, she’s certainly not emotionless, and events often affect her more deeply than she can adequately communicate. As a reader who loves seriously flawed heroines who encounter real failure and guilt, Nyx was a perfect fit for me.

I loved the world and the characters, but the basic plot is a pretty typical bloody action story.  This is one of the most violent novels I’ve read in quite a while, full of combat, murder, dismemberment, and even torture.  Between the violence, the substance abuse, the language, and the references to sex, it’s a pretty R-rated novel.  The story begins with a very long introductory segment for Rhys and Nyx, after which it jumps ahead several years to the bounty hunt that comprises most of the novel.  The actual stakes of the hunt aren’t really clear until the end, so it’s difficult to really feel invested in the team’s success or failure to catch their prey.  More than the hunt, I was fascinated by the resulting character interactions and acknowledgements of Nyx’s mistakes, flaws and past crimes through encounters with people from her past and present.

My Rating: 4/5

After reading God’s War, I’m pretty eager to read more of Hurley’s work.  The basic plot is a pretty typical, very bloody action story—Nyx and her team are chasing a dangerous bounty, trying to stay one step ahead of other dangerous interested parties—but the world building and the characters really made the story work for me. However, Nyx is not a particularly good person or sympathetic character, and I’m sure reader reactions to her will vary wildly.  I found the strange technology and various societies of Umayma fascinating, and I enjoyed the engagement with how society shapes views of gender and sexuality.  I loved how deeply flawed and imperfectly skilled the characters were, and how real the possibility of failure was in their lives. I’m looking forward to seeing how Hurley will expand on this world in her future novels!

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