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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

God's War - Kameron Hurley

I salute Night Shade Books.  Starting with Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl two years ago, they've been been pumping out quality debuts.  This year alone Night Shade released an incredible portfolio of new authors that have been consistently well received (you can visit a nice chunk of them at  God's War from Kameron Hurley is very much in this tradition albeit in a novel that ignores genre tradition with impunity.

God's War is a second world fantasy novel written in a technologically advanced society.  On her twitter feed last (@nkjemisin) week Hugo Nominated Author N.K. Jemisin asked about whether technology predisposed classification as science fiction in lieu of fantasy.  If I was making an argument that technology and fantasy aren't mutually exclusive, Hurley's novel would be the example I hold up.  She introduces lots of technology - firearms, cars, spacecraft, wireless communication, among others.  The twist is, nearly all of this technology functions through a "mystical" connection between gifted humans (called... wait for it... magicians!) who utilize insects as a power source.

Hurley's plot centers around a woman named Nyxnissa and her unlucky team of bounty hunters headlined by the not so talented magician, Rhys.  Set in a world where competing religious factions (both of which "feel" a lot like Islam) have been at war for generations, all men are required to serve at the front.  Those that refuse become fair game for teams like Nyx's to be hunted down, killed, and turned in for monetary reward.  When the queens calls Nyx's number for a very particular bounty she and her team drop everything to get back on top.

What makes God's War such an accomplishment has little to do with its plot.  In fact, the early going of the narrative is rather disjointed with blanks that could use filling.  Things are never real clear as to why Nyx's team is so loyal to her and the relationships between Nyx and the various arms of the government lack an equal amount of lucidity.  What rescues the novel and makes it such a great read are wonderfully drawn characters and original unexpected world building.

To the first point, Hurley's primary characters are the aforementioned Nyx and Rhys.  Her plot flows around these two as they struggle to survive, their relationship to the war-torn world around them, and ultimately their relationship to each other.  Nyx is about as hard boiled a female as I've ever seen - somewhat reminiscent of Joe Abercrombie's Monza from Best Served Cold.  Unlike Abercrombie's version of the tough female, Nyx comes off authentic; less a force of nature, and more irrecoverably broken by the life she's led.  Somehow she retains humanity and a modicum of vulnerability that strikes the perfect tone in her interactions with Rhys who functions as the literary foil to Nyx.  Where she is all hard edges, Rhys is softer and more vulnerable hiding the hard edges from view.  It makes for a poignant juxtaposition that excels from beginning to end.

The world Nyx and Rhys inhabit is just as poignant.  Couched in real world terms God's War provides a look not so dissimilar from what might go on in the Middle East if everyone gave up the hope of peace.  While both sides of the war worship the same God and read from the same book, their interpretations are night and day. Nyx's side has become matriarchal, sacrificing the entire male population as fodder on the front lines. The other remains patriarchal with a continued practice of marginalizing women despite the massive exportation of men to the front.

Umayma, the planet on which this all takes place, is an anathema to human life as the war itself.  Cancer is rampant among those lacking the means to prevent it and ethnic minorities are discarded.  But for a very brief scene in the middle pages, God's War never takes us to war itself.  The novel's focus is instead on the war at home - how it impacts those who come back broken and those who were never allowed to go.  Interestingly, this is not a sentimental book that beats the drum about the pointlessness of war.  Hurley sets the stage, moves her beautiful characters across it, and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions.

While there are certainly some narrative hiccups indicative of its status as a debut novel, God's War is a clever reinterpretation of the war novel.  Hurley takes on issues of gender roles, violence, and religion and does it all with a deft hand.  I sincerely hope it receives some well deserved attention come award season and I strongly suggest my readers check this one out.

The sequel to God's War is coming out next month, titled Infidel.  I already have my hands on it so expect a review in a week or two.

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