by Kameron Hurley
Cover Artist: David Palumbo
Review by Benjamin Wald
Night Shade Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781597802147
Date: 18 January 2011 List Price $14.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Kameron Hurley's God's War has magicians, shapeshifters, and various species of bugs used for everything from refrigeration to home security. Despite these fantasy trappings, however, it is unequivocally a science-fictional novel. The bugs are bioengineered organic technology, the magicians gain their strange abilities through the genetically inherited ability to control these bugs with pheromones, and the shapeshifters... are never fully explained, although it seems to be some kind of genetic mutation. The setting is a terraformed colony planet riven by a seemingly endless religious war.
The novel follows a group of bounty hunters, each of whom is an outcast in a different way, as they try to find and capture an alien woman who may be able to finally bring the war to an end. However, in many ways this plot arc is not the focus of the novel, it serves mainly as a framework within which to explore the devastating effects of the war and various forms of discrimination and oppression have on the protagonists. The setting is defined by war and religion. Chenga and Nasheen have been at war for so long that conflict is the norm, accepted by all as part of the background of society. Nasheen, in which most of the novel takes place, has had there social structure indelibly altered by the war; all young men are drafted into the army, and most die there, leaving a society of almost all women along with some bitter and elderly male veterans. The main character, Nyx, is one of the few women who volunteered to serve at the front alongside the men, and she is deeply scared by her experiences there, in ways that only become clear as the novel progresses.
The other major feature of the setting is religion. The war is a religious war, not between different religion but between different interpretations of the same religion, a close analogue of Islam. Nasheen is more progressive, with Nyx herself being an atheist, while Chenga is fundamentalist, with men marrying dozens of wives and women wearing veils. While Nyx embodies the effects of the war, the influence of religion is more prominent in the other main character, Rhys. Rhys fled Chenga for Nasheen after dodging the draft. He becomes a magician, but has only a little talent, and this combined with the prejudice against him because of his nationality forces him to work for Nyx as part of her bounty hunter squad. Rhys is deeply religious, and while his personal spirituality is generally portrayed in a positive light, as a source of personal strength if nothing else, the effects of religious intolerance on wider society is revealed quite scathingly. In a way, Rhys serves as the counterpoint to the problems with religion that the book explores, giving a picture of the more positive role religion can play.
The novel takes some time to introduce the characters and the setting, but the plot really gets moving when Nyx is offered a staggering reward if she can capture a woman from another planet, who has technology that could end the war. Her mission is complicated by a rival bounty hunter team working against her, as well as a plot by a faction of the government to foil her mission. One criticism of the novel is that neither of these antagonistic groups is given that much attention; I found that the motivations of each were somewhat obscure. The main focus of the novel is on the characters inner lives, and so some elements of the plotting donít get as much time as they need to emerge fully.
So if the characters are the focus, how do they stack up? I have mixed feelings. I thought the character of Nyx was skillfully drawn, handled with subtlety and plenty of raw emotion. However, I just couldn't like her, and thus had trouble sympathizing with her. She is clearly meant to be a hard, brutal, damaged woman, and this is always tough to square with a protagonist that readers will get invested in. I've seen it work, but in this case it just didn't come together, and this left me less involved in her struggles than I would otherwise have been. On the other hand, the more minor characters were amazing. I loved Rhys, and the other members of Nyx's squad were fascinating and engaging, each with a unique voice and outlook, each an outcast in a different way that revealed a different facet of the society the author has created.
Overall, this novel provides a fascinating exploration of the impact of war and oppression, through skillful writing and well rendered characters. A few rough edges in the plotting and a disagreeable protagonist held the book back from brilliance, but it was both highly enjoyable and thought provoking nonetheless. Kameron Hurley is a writer to watch.