Night Shade Books, 2010, 288 pages
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.
I really wanted to love this book, but I had to settle for "liked it quite a bit and hope the author improves." It gets full marks for being an imaginative, complicated setting that's just full of directions to go in future books, but story-wise, it has much of the look and feel of an Urban Fantasy in the "bad-ass chick who's a hot damaged mess" genre, and all of Hurley's creativity seemed to be expended on her world, at the expense of her characters. The sum of the novel is not stronger than its parts, so let me look at the parts individually.
Umayma -- scarred by religion, NBC contaminants, and really nasty cockroaches
The setting of God's War is the world of Umayma, 3000 years in the future. At some point, colonists "descended from Umayma's moons" (I'm not sure if this means that initially the planet's moons were colonized, if there are still people living there, or what) and settled on Umayma, bringing their religions with them.
The culture is actually kind of Assyrian. While the religion obviously is Islam (though it's never actually named -- I don't believe the words 'Muslim' or 'Islam' actually appear anywhere in the book), it's an Islam mutated by 3000 years of history on another planet. There are two main countries on this planet: Chenja and Nasheen. They share the same religion, though of course they each claim to practice the pure and correct form of it, and have been at war with one another for centuries. There are other countries who are neutral parties; they have their own religions too (and likewise, they are not named, but it's heavily implied that Christians and possibly Zoroastrians or Jews are still around).
Umayma is scarred by centuries of warfare. Chenja and Nasheen have been using nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons on one another for centuries. People walk around with oozing cancer sores. And if that's not bad enough, Umayma's dominant indigenous life form seems to be insects -- lots of insects, of all shapes and sizes. In fact, insects provide the technology that drives society, obviously bioengineered but now serving so many functions that "bug-tech" is indistinguishable from magic. Vehicles are insect-powered (bugs generate heat and light, and damaged "bakkies" leave a trail of dead beetles on the road instead of dripping oil). Weapons might shoot bullets, or they might shoot exploding bugs or bug-acid or venomous bug-darts. Lights are actually light-emitting bugs. Heat-sucking bugs are used as ice cubes. (Imagine a glass full of bugs to chill your drink!) Insects are used for everything from torture to surgery, with sufficiently advanced technology that Umayman "magicians" (people who have a genetic ability to control insects) can actually reattach or regrow lost body parts. You can survive just about anything, even a shotgun blast to the head, if a magician gets to you quickly enough.
Besides magicians, there are also "shifters," another Umayman ability that was apparently genetically engineered at some point. Shifters can turn into animals.
This is not hard SF. It's more like Urban Fantasy masquerading as sci-fi. Hurley doesn't bother trying to explain any of this "bug-tech," but it makes the world weird and interesting and downright creepy.
The politics are complicated, too, or as complicated as Hurley can describe in a relatively short book. Chenjans and Nasheenians are two cultures separated by a common religion. They're ethnically and linguistically distinct as well, and the minor cultures of the book, like the Midhorans and the Ras Tiegans, also get just enough description to make them interesting. Then there are the aliens -- although the story takes place entirely on Umayma, apparently there is still some contact with spacefaring humanity, who have their own problems going on (which ends up being one of the plot points later in the book).
I liked this "bugpunk" setting very much. It's like one of those worlds Steve Jackson Games used to produce weird, niche little GURPS supplements to roleplay in.
Nyxnyssa -- a hot, damaged mess in leather pants
The main character is Nyxnyssa, a former "Bel Dame." Bel Dames are sort of the Nasheenian not-so-secret police/Women's Olympic Assassination Team. All men of fighting age are drafted to go to the front, so women pretty much run everything else. (Women can also volunteer to go fight.) Bel Dames hunt down boys who avoid the fighting and cut off their heads. Yeah, nice. Nyx is a former Bel Dame -- she got into a bit of financial trouble, started doing blackmarket work on the side, and became a target for her former sisters.
This is the first problem -- the first part of the book is basically all prologue. We are introduced to Nyx, we see her on the run, pursued by fellow Bel Dames, and we see her get her ass kicked. She goes to prison, and in part two, she's been released and is now running a bounty hunter operation, basically doing what she did as a Bel Dame except for money instead of honor and glory.
Her team is made up of a Chenjan magician, a Ras Tiegan shifter, and a few other people from the other countries who I didn't really care about. This was the second and more damaging flaw: everyone is unlikable. It's hard to make people sympathize with a bunch of mercenaries who basically wander around a war-ravaged world chopping off heads for money, like scavengers collecting aluminum cans and bottles for the deposits. Characterization consists of Nyx indiscriminately fucking anyone (male or female) who will hold still long enough while she's drunk, and angsting about all her dead brothers and the boys she left behind at the front. Everyone else also has baggage, family problems, dead loved ones, is secretly homosexual (the different nations of Umayma have varying tolerance for both male and female homosexuality, from "technically a sin but tacitly encouraged" to "burn them at stake"), or otherwise has some reason why they'd be following anyone as screwed up as Nyx. Hurley really should have kept us in Nyx's head and made the story entirely about her. The main secondary character is Rhys, the Chenjan magician, and the constantly unfulfilled sexual tension between him and Nyx (they respect each other in a twisted kind of way and they also are full of contempt and hate for one another) was one of the few deft and suitably complex relationships in the book. I might have become more invested in them with a little more attention paid exclusively to them, but there are also chapters where we go into the heads and problems of the other characters on Nyx's team, so by the end, we know that everyone has major problems and loved ones they are trying to save and a painful, sinful past, but without enough time given to any of them, and without much of their better natures being seen, there is not much reason to care.
I think the author wanted to pull off a bad-ass heroine who's as dark and broody and bloody and unapologetically promiscuous as any testosterone-poisoned jock hero, and Nyx is definitely all that. But like her male counterparts, she ends up being a dick, and I didn't really care if she died.
It's a bumpy ride
Flaws aside, I liked this book. It's exciting and there's tons of action and bloodshed and gunfights, boxing matches, and flesh-eating acid-spewing creepy-crawlies. The plot is a pretty standard one, once we finally get to it: Nyx and her team are hired by the Queen of Nasheen to bring back an off-worlder (dead or alive) who's traipsing back and forth across the Nasheen-Chenjan border like a war tourist. The alien has her own agenda, which may affect the endless war between Nasheen and Chenja. Why does the Queen hire a bounty hunter instead of sending her own Bel Dames? There is lots of political intrigue, of course, though it's not detailed enough to make it clear, which makes all the scheming a bit confusing in the end. Nyx and her associates have so many friends, enemies, and frenemies that the last part of the book is pretty much nothing but double- and triple-crossing, and in the end I was just kind of going "Okay, who's on which side and what happened here?"
I tend to pick at flaws a lot in my reviews, but while God's War is a very flawed book, it's also a very good one, just not a great one. Kameron Hurley apparently has a trilogy planned, and I will certainly check out the next book. I think most of the flaws in this first novel will start to be smoothed out once she's got a few more books under her belt. She definitely has writing chops: Umayma is imaginative and some of the descriptive passages are great (though the narration isn't always) and the plot was twisty and sharp in all the right places. (And sometimes jagged and uneven in the wrong ones.) Yes, this is one of those books I'm somewhat ambivalent about whether my opinion leans more towards praise or criticism, but I have plenty of both and I do recommend it for anyone who thinks the premise sounds interesting.
Note: Don't buy the Kindle version from Amazon: the DRM-free version is cheaper at WebScription.net. (You can also read the first eight chapters for free at that link.)
Verdict: This is a debut novel and it shows, with bumpy pacing and characters who become a sort of indistinguishable bloody mess (literally and figuratively) by the end. But the setting is one of the most imaginatively constructed I've read in a long time, and the action is constant if sometimes confusing. This is a dark, bloody, bug-infested urban fantasy/sci-fi mash-up, and a rough-cut gem. I will look forward to more from this author.