Three things counted against Kameron Hurley’s God’s War before I started reading it. I mention this now so that my prejudices, such as they are, lie cleanly in the open. First, I had read Hurley’s short story, ‘Afterbirth’, and had not been impressed with it. It seemed to be messy, disorganised, and tapping into a style of feminist sf that I personally considered to be old-fashioned. If, as I gathered, it was set in the same universe as God’s War, it didn’t inspire confidence. Secondly, Paul Kincaid had read the novel and had not been impressed by it. We don’t agree about everything but we have tastes sufficiently in common that I usually pay attention to his views. Thirdly, I had become sick and tired of people behaving as though God’s War was a herald of the Second Coming. I have a strong distaste for hype, and the more people go on about something the less inclined I am to read it immediately.
The corollary of ignoring things that people make too much fuss about is that when I do come to them, at my own leisure, it is often to find that while the novel in question is not that bad, neither is it as wonderful as everyone claims. Here I might point to Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow which is a perfectly blameless sf novel so far as it goes, but it does not go as far as everyone claimed at the time. It was, though, clearly a zeitgeist novel, and I have come to the conclusion that the same may be so for God’s War. In fact, let me start by saying that God’s War was rather more enjoyable to read than I had been anticipating after ‘Afterbirth’. On the other hand, I am still slightly at a loss to understand the level of fuss it has generated. It has flashes of brilliance but in many respects it is not particularly exceptional, and in one or two places it is downright flawed.
At the centre of the story is Nyx, formerly a bel dame or, if you like, government-sponsored assassin, who now works as a bounty hunter, along with a hand-picked team, mostly people she has poached from other bounty hunters. The setting is Umamya, described by another character as a post-Haj world, which points towards there having been some sort of interstellar Islamic migration, though the nature of this is left unclear. Nasheen and Chenja, we are led to understand, have been at war for at least a century, so much so that the war has effectively become an institution; it appears to be being fought over religious matters but it is extremely difficult to tell what the issues are.. All the young men of Nasheen, Nyx’s home country, are obliged to serve until they are forty; participation in public life is contingent on this. However, they are only one part of the story. There are also what are termed ‘magicians’, who seem to be scientists with a particular expertise in genetic engineering, and mercenaries. This is not only a men’s war. Nasheen is a matriarchal society, for reasons that are also not entirely clear. Women can serve at the front, and Nyx is among those who did so. Other women participate in the breeding programmes to ensure a regular supply of new fighters.
Nyx’s life has been shaped by her experiences at the front. She has a casual, approach to life, death, sex, drink, religion, violence and so on. Effectively, all she knows how to do is to kill, which she does well. About the rest she is entirely fatalistic. Yet one can sense too her dissatisfaction with this even as she knows that there is currently no way out of such a life. She has been brutalised by her experiences but there is no undoing of them.
Paul Kincaid has elsewhere raised objections to the way in which Hurley presents this war. Economically, logistically, it makes no sense at all and seems to be effectively unsustainable. But as with the effects of Maternal Death Syndrome in Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which is in some respects a crisis of fictional convenience, so is this a war of fictional convenience, always in the background, coming forward as and when needed to make a particular dramatic point but mostly kept at a scenic distance. There is no point in interrogating its wherewithal; it is almost a war of the mind, something intended to maintain a strong sense of nationhood, and the reader might almost suspect it isn’t really happening except that there is just enough evidence to suggest that it is.
Nyx, as I noted earlier, was once a bel dame, part of a government network of assassins, but was thrown out after a previous incident. Thus, she is surprised to be summoned to the palace to be given a task, to hunt down a missing alien visitor, who has access to genetic technology which, so the Queen believes, can put an end to the war. It is, though, a question of who gets to her first. The Queen has summoned a number of other bounty hunters, all of whom have so far failed to locate the woman. The mystery is why she has not used the bel dames. It quickly becomes clear that the bel dames themselves have become factionalised, some working for the queen, some against, and that they are also unofficially hunting for the missing alien, but also planning to put Nyx and her team out of the picture altogether.
One cannot help likening the bel dames to Frank Herbert’s Bene Gesserit, although their methods are perhaps less sophisticated and their aims less long-term. Nonetheless, there is the sense of their need to meddle in politics and shape the country’s destiny. One suspects this will come to the fore again in the sequel. The politics generally are very murky, again broadly sketched, with much hand-waving. Much is left unexplained, not leas the presence of off-worlders. Among the nations of Umamya, only Nasheen seems to have pursued a matriarchal route. While in Chenja men seem to be the dominant gender, and in the other countries one has the sense that the situation is similar to a greater or lesser degree, it is in Nasheen that men dare not walk the streets for fear of violence, doubly so if, as in the case of Rhys, Nyx’s magician, they come from Chenja. The role reversal is, to be honest, rather crude for most of the time, and something I associate with an earlier wave of feminist sf writing, which settled for simply switching the roles of men and women. One wonders what kind of point is being made by having women veterans simply swaggering around in bars, taking on roles occupied by men in other countries. One might hope for something more subtle, but I can’t determine whether Hurley is trying to suggest that the whole of Umamya is so brutalised by the war nothing else can be expected, or whether this is something unique to Nasheen’s culture, and that everything is expressed through fighting.
It might point towards a deeper tension in the novel between the broadly sketched background and the close-up focus on Nyx and her team. Stripped of the war, the gender politics and so on, the bounty hunters nonetheless remain as a powerful force on the page. Apart from Nyx, there is Rhys, a mysterious refugee from Chenja and an at best adequate magician; Kosh and Anneke, who are ‘shifters’ or shape changers, and Taite, the comms man. Misfits one and all, with back stories they mostly prefer not to talk about, as the novel unwinds the reader comes to understand more of what drives them. Kosh, for example, moves boy children to safety in other countries using a network of brothels.
Rhys is similarly interesting, in part for his desire to become a magician, able to control insects, in part for the oddly tender relationship that he and Nyx form, based in part on a mutual antipathy, in part on an inexplicable need for one another’s company, and perhaps summed up in Nyx’s constant request to him to read to her from the Kitab, the holy book. There is a sense, perhaps, that Rhys represents that finer part of herself that she can no longer find.
The mysterious ‘bug tech’ that pervades the novel is one of the most fascinating things about the whole novel. One assumes that the earlier magicians (why magicians, one asks; what went wrong with ‘scientist’ other than that someone somewhere took Clarke’s Third Law very much to heart) worked with whatever they had to hand, in this case insects before moving on to other forms of genetic engineering. The technology is all-pervasive but there is little indication of how it works, other than that magicians seem to have a greater propensity than ordinary people to somehow communicate with insects, and that the insects have acquired various extra functions.
But is such novelty enough to rescue the narrative from other awkwardness? As it stands, I am doubtful whether it is. I am bothered by this portrayal of a world that we are obviously intended to read as Islamic, with its mixture of cultures, all of which revolve around a holy book, the Kitab (Arabic for book, and apparently also a synonym for the Quran), and most of which place women in a subordinate position, with only Nasheen as a fairly crude sort of counter. The religious and gender politics would bear a much more detailed unpicking than I have time for here. I wondered frequently as I read the novel whether I wasn’t reading some sort of broad-brush Anglo-American perception of an Islamic-style world but without knowing more about Hurley, what can I say?
I am bothered too by the awkward construction of this novel. It feels as though in places it has been patched together. Part One, the first five chapters, has an entirely different feel to the rest of the novel. The narrative seems to start only fifty pages into the novel. This might also go some way to explaining the oddity of ‘Afterbirth’, a story that seemed neither to begin or end properly. Paul Kincaid has also noted that the plot is always moved on by an act of violence, and he is correct in this. The number of times members of the group are kidnapped, imprisoned and rescued is remarkable, not to mention statistically implausible; clearly, there have to be other ways to move the plot forward, if only to suggest that the team are the competent bounty hunters they are supposed to be (though they are undoubtedly skilled at escape).
And yet, although I think that this novel is a political and structural mess, the central group of Nyx, Rhys and the rest of their team, damaged as they are, is oddly attractive and I found in the end that I genuinely cared about what happened to them, which is not a thing I say very often.
I still don’t believe this novel heralds the Second Coming. Its strengths, such as they are, lie in unexpected areas, in the way the relationships between team members are sketched, in their interactions. The background, the plot and so forth are at times almost incidental; the interactions could happen almost anywhere. Yet I find myself now wanting to read on, and indeed to reread, to go more deeply into this world that is struggling to come to birth.