It seems like such a long time since I last read a straight-up, proper sci-fi story. I have, of course, read novels that are grounded in science, but I do believe the last one I read that might be considered truly sci-fi would be Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One sometime in September; the last sci-fi novel I read that was set in outer space was The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold, and that was all the way back in August. After I finished Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore I was very definitely hankering for sci-fi, preferably something involving aliens and gunfights. It was tempting, of course, to pick up the next book in Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, or the next book in Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, or Caliban’s War, the sequel to Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey. But I felt like reading something with a female protagonist, written by a female author. A lot of women have stepped up to the front lines of genre fiction in the last couple of years, and I wanted to read something in that vein.
It was then that I decided to take a peek into the rather sizable to-read pile I’d accumulated, and decided it was a good time to read Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. It was something I’d put off reading, mostly because I simply wasn’t in the right place, intellectually speaking, to handle what the blurb implied would be a rather heavy read. But four days ago I was ready for it, and dove right in – something I do not regret, though it has left me reeling a little in a very good way.
God’s War takes place on a planet called Umayma: baking under the light of two suns, where exposure means cancer or worse. On top of that it is a war-torn planet, as two nations, Nasheen and Chenja, are embroiled in a holy war that has made life even more difficult. Chenja is still run by men, but Nasheen is dominated by women. Both countries send all able-bodied males to the front, where they must serve a certain number of years before they are allowed to come back.
And onto this bloody, ravaged stage steps Nyxnissa “Nyx” so Dasheem, a bel dame: a professional assassin in the employ of the Nasheenian government, with the duty of executing deserters and possible contagion carriers before they get into the heart of Nasheen. But things don’t go quite well for Nyx, and soon enough she finds herself stripped of her bel dame title and privileges, and doing work as a bounty hunter with a small team of troubled individuals. Soon enough, though, she receives a message from no one less than the Queen of Nasheen herself, who asks Nyx to accomplish a mission that may either make Nyx and her crew – or break them all.
The first thing that I like about this novel is that it doesn’t spend a lot of time in exposition explaining how the world works to the reader. There are times when such an approach to world-building is acceptable, and very enjoyable (to myself, anyway), but I like how Hurley simply dove in and left it up to the reader to figure out how this world worked based on what was going on in the story. It’s not kind on the reader, to be sure, but it shows a certain amount of faith in the readers’ intelligence that I greatly appreciate. It also means that there is more time spent in characterization and plot, and I believe that it’s those two elements that truly make or break a story.
Speaking of characters, this novel has some very interesting and very damaged ones. Nyx is a prime example: a veteran of the war front against Chenja, she’s been blown up, burned, reconstituted, beaten, and undergone all sorts of torture – and yet, through her sheer force of will, she continues to survive. Events in her past and throughout the storyline have left and continue to leave Nyx with many physical scars, of course, but it is the psychological scars that truly make Nyx who she is: so damaged that sometimes, she can’t see beyond her own nose at the people around her. She is far, far from admirable, and she is not the type of character that will be universally liked, but that is what makes her so fascinating. She is as her world and her situation made her, as much as she has made herself.
The other characters in the novel are just as complex as Nyx, even if they don’t receive a lot of screen time, so to speak. There is Rhys, a magician refugee from Chenja and Nyx’s right-hand man. Throughout the course of the novel he struggles to hold onto everything he has ever held dear: his honor, his faith, his belief in the rightness of his own beliefs – and yet the reader watches all of that fall apart in the face of the war and in the face of Nyx herself, as her actions show Rhys that maybe, just maybe, he might be wrong after all. There is Taite and his sister Inaya, refugees as well from Ras Tieg, which they fled to avoid persecution. Khos, a Mhorian, is also running away from restrictions in his own country. None of them is completely innocent, completely good, and that’s the point. No one can be the metaphorical ray of sunshine in a novel like this, not with the kind of themes it has running.
And the themes in this novel are quite heavy. I really enjoy it when genre fiction is used to refract the reality and concerns of our world, and God’s War is an excellent example of such a novel. As the title implies, it ties itself to the ongoing issue of war and religion, and the price or prices that both extract from humanity when one is fought in the name of the other. The results are, of course, not pretty: the very first chapter shows the devastation and desolation wrought by years and years of holy war. Many of the images echo disturbingly with the images that we receive now through various news outlets and media platforms, and the story continues to expand on this by illustrating the desperate lengths people will go in order to survive such a world. Interwoven with those two primary concerns are issues connected to race, gender and the environment, which are handled extraordinarily well. It would be giving away too many spoilers to discuss just how those are handled, but suffice to say that they are dealt with, and, in my opinion, dealt with very well, especially considering how they are incorporated into the story.
As for the plot, that is very well done as well. I enjoy stories that are all about cloak-and-dagger, political intrigue, and this is precisely what lies at the core of God’s War. Again to explain how that is the case would mean giving away too many spoilers, but it is there, and it was very enjoyable to read how Nyx and her team unraveled the mystery lying at the heart of the mission given to them by the queen. Hurley also weaves world-building brilliantly into her plot and keeps it moving, balancing action and storytelling with creating the world her characters inhabit. As I mentioned earlier, this places a great deal of faith in the readers’ intelligence to put the pieces together to build the world for themselves, but I feel Hurley does it very well without bogging her plot down much. The beginning may feel slow at first, but by the time the reader gets to the middle third of the novel it begins to pick up speed, and the slow pace of the first third is forgotten in the rapid pace of the second and in the revelations of the third.
Overall, God’s War is an incredible piece of writing: a well-built world, populated by interesting characters with a plot that moves along very well and dealing in themes that continue to concern us today, despite the far-flung future in which the novel is set. It is, admittedly, the “deep end of the pool” when it comes to sci-fi, and the characters may be off-putting to some, but readers with experience and patience will find their efforts very well-rewarded by a story that offers far more than it initially promises.