Some reviews are harder to write than others. Take God’s War, the first novel by Kameron Hurley, an author whose blog I’ve been reading with interest. The book had a long journey getting published (which you can read about on said blog) and has now, finally, reached the shelves thanks to the awesome folks at Night Shade Books. I was excited to get my hands on this book, because it’s in a sub-genre (or maybe more accurately, the cross-section of a few sub-genres) I love, has a number of features I usually appreciate in books, and seems completely and in every way like a book that I should love unconditionally… but despite enjoying and admiring much of it, God’s War didn’t completely deliver on my expectations.
Living on the planet Umayma isn’t easy. The world is extremely inhospitable, and even relatively short exposure to outside conditions quickly leading to cancers and various other unpleasant consequences. In addition, war has been raging for years, mainly between the countries of Nasheen and Chenja over religious differences. Chemical and biological weapons are used as a matter of course. It just really isn’t a fun place to live, folks. In Nasheen, women are effectively in charge because virtually every semi-adult male has been shipped off to the war front. One of the most powerful groups in this country is the government-funded assassins known as “bel dames,” which on the surface may sound like French for “beautiful ladies” but actually has other meaningful connotations, if you care to dig a little deeper. One of these bel dames is the novel’s protagonist Nyxnissa (or “Nyx” for short), but right from the start it is clear that Nyx isn’t exactly playing by the bel dames’ rules. Before long, Nyx is an independent mercenary who gets involved in a plot that will affect the future of the entire planet… and who will have some of her former colleagues out for her blood.
Starting this review with a description of the planet rather than the characters seems natural, because world-building is one of the real strengths of God’s War. Kameron Hurley does an amazing job creating a very realistic dystopian setting. In addition, her prose is consistently sharp and descriptive, so even when you’re not 100% sure what’s going on, it’s always a pleasure to read. Take, for example, the novel’s first paragraphs:
Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.
Drunk, but no longer bleeding, she pushed into a smoking 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.
Nyx lost every coin, a wad of opium, and the wine she’d gotten from the butchers as a bonus for her womb. But she did get Jaks into bed, and — loser or not — in the desert after dark, that was something.
This type of dark, atmospheric, cutting prose can be found throughout God’s War. What’s even more impressive: as you read on, you’ll find that there’s actually a ton of information hidden in those first few sentences.
One of the most intriguing world-building elements is the novel’s magic system — if that’s what it is, because even though the practitioners (who are able to control the bugs that are used for fuel, food and other things) are referred to as “magicians,” their power could just as well be one of those “sufficiently advanced technologies” that’s indistinguishable from magic, or (maybe more likely) a genetic mutation of some sort, if a fleeting reference to magicians using pheromones to control the bugs is an indicator. A second type of maybe-magic-maybe-not is used by the “shifters,” humans that are able to change into animals. Finally, there also appears to be a network of gates connecting the magicians’ “gyms” in various cities. How it all works is never explained in detail, but all of it is extremely exotic and fascinating — and that’s not even mentioning the mysterious “bakkie” vehicles (fueled by, of course, bugs) and the fact that both organs and blood seem to be a tradable commodity on Umayma. Amazingly, there are enough unique and intriguing world-building ideas in God’s War to fill more than one novel.
However, for such an innovative concept, there’s very little exposition to be found in God’s War. Almost nothing is spelled out for the reader, so there’s a serious learning curve while you try to find your bearings. I ended up going back and re-reading the first 4 chapters (which comprise “Part 1” of the novel and are really a very long prologue setting up the main intrigue in Part 2), just to make sure I hadn’t missed some key point that would connect the dots before moving on to the rest of the novel. Of course, lots of science fiction and fantasy introduces unfamiliar elements. Anyone who reads enough speculative fiction eventually develops what Jo Walton calls an SFF “reading skillset” and knows to keep reading, because usually things will become more clear as the story develops, but in this case I somehow found myself more disoriented than normally would be the case. Easing a reader into a brand new fictional universe is an art; as much as I admire God’s War, it’s definitely not as accessible as it could have been. Regardless, I’d rather read a choppy book filled with strikingly original ideas than a smooth book without any innovation.
When I said Umayma isn’t a fun place to live, that’s really just the tip of the iceberg because this novel is dark, dark, dark. Yes, the planet is a violent, poisoned, war-ravaged place, but that’s not all: the novel features an amazing amount of violence, some explicit torture scenes, lots of drug use, and generally a stunning amount of sheer human misery. Just the descriptions of the world’s effects on people are enough to make your skin crawl:
He had stayed as far from the contagion clouds as possible, but when he stumbled through Chenja and into the nearest Nasheenian border town, he was hacking up his lungs in bloody clumps and his skin burned and bubbled like tar.
Even as someone who loves dystopian fiction, this book is such a relentless assault of darkness and unpleasantness that it eventually started to get to me. Then again, if “any reaction is better than no reaction” is true, God’s War is successful at least in that its gritty, grisly environment did affect me strongly.
The novel’s characters are introduced in much the same way as its fictional universe: without much exposition. They’re tight-lipped and hard to figure (not to mention mostly unlikeable), so it takes a while for them to grow on you. The two main characters, Nyx and Rhys (a Chenjan with some magic skills who ends up in Nyx’s crew) eventually evolve into real people: Nyx, the brash and independent main focus of the story should please any reader who enjoys a kick-ass female protagonist, and Rhys, who is more soft-spoken and gentle, almost seems out of place in this book (it would be great to learn more about his life in Chenja before the start of God’s War in future novels). Unfortunately, most of the side-characters (including the members of Nyx’s mercenary crew, her main rival Taite, and especially the other bel dames) remain relatively two-dimensional. Combine this with the constant, grinding darkness, and by the end of the novel I was so numb that the story’s explosive climax just didn’t hit me as hard as it should have.
So, there you have it: an aggressively dark, highly original SF-fantasy novel with tight, cutting prose and some of the most inventive world-building I’ve seen in a while (trust me, there’s much, much more going on than I’ve described in this review). Some aspects of this debut novel are simply great, others don’t work, but in the end, if you like your SFF dark and edgy, you simply have to give God’s War a try. Kameron Hurley is a promising new author with a distinctive voice and a terrific (not to say terrifying) imagination. There’s not a shred of doubt in my mind that, as she continues to write and evolve, we’ll be treated to some amazing novels by her in the future. Even if this first novel didn’t click 100% for me, I’ll be first in line to read whatever she produces next.