Fantastic Reviews - Science Fiction Book Review
God's War USA cover God's War by Kameron Hurley

Night Shade Books Trade Paperback - Copyright 2011
288 pages
Cover Art by David Palumbo

Book Reviewed April 2013
Rating: 7/10  (Recommended)

Review by Patty Palko

          Kameron Hurley has a serious thing for bugs.  Inventor of a subgenre of the New Weird, she initially described her first novel God's War as "retro-cyberpunky," but added:  "It's funny, when you don't have a word that describes exactly what you want, you sort of just cobble them together from existing words.  Because I think what I meant was, you know, steampunk without the steam, but with a little cyber, only organic-cyber...er, organic punk? er...Bugpunk."

For Hurley, bugs are integral to credible world building.  And for the most part, it works, as shown by the novel's 2012 Nebula Award and James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award nominations.  Bugs enrich the landscape of God's War to the point where they are a fact of everyday life and a major component of the economy:

        They drove past women and girls walking along the highway carrying baskets on their heads and huge nets over their shoulders.  Bugs were popular trade with the magicians in Faleen.  Professional creepers caught up to three kilos a day - striped chafers, locusts, tumblebugs, spider wasps, dragonflies, pselaphid beetles, fungus weevils - and headed to the magicians' gym to trade them in for opium, new kidneys, good lungs, maybe a scraping or two to take off the cancers.

Bugtech is used for powering automobiles, practicing medicine, detecting weapons, and other feats of magic/science.  If you have a fear of creepy-crawlies, you may want to avoid this novel since live bugs are prevalent:  they wriggle through the body while healing wounds, swarm from person to person in order to facilitate communication, and drug inconveniently awake people (open mouth, insert squirming roach).  My inability to categorize bugtech as magic or science reflects how well Hurley blurred the line between fantasy, science fiction, and horror.  If pressed, I would call the book science fantasy.

God's War occurs on the planet Umayma, colonized thousands of years ago by humans.  The two countries where most of the action takes place, Nasheen and Chenja, have been involved in a centuries-long war whose reasons for fighting have been forgotten.

The protagonist is Nyx, a solid woman, broad through the hips and breasts, and heavily muscled.  In short, she's a brick house.  Her physical aspect only reinforces her unstoppable nature.  Like the terminator, she just keeps coming back.

When we meet her, she is on the run for trafficking in genetically modified embryos.  Zygotes are used to produce infectious agents for killing soldiers and the enemy populace.  That these bioweapons may be used against her people doesn't concern Nyx;  she's in it for the money.  Hot on her heals are the Bel Dames, government sponsored bounty hunters responsible for beheading military deserters and gene pirates.  Once a member of this sisterhood, Nyx tries to placate them by bringing in the head of a wanted fugitive.  She lands in prison, instead.  We rejoin her several years later, after she has assembled a team of misfits and started a private bounty hunter business.  Hers is not one of the top tier establishments, but her reputation to persist gets her a contract from the Nasheenian Queen to chase down an off world gene pirate who may have the technology to end the war.

Notwithstanding her ability to survive against all odds, Nyx has been profoundly affected by her experiences at the front and has posttraumatic stress disorder.  The only person who can calm her fears is Rhys, a Chenjan man like the ones she used to kill when she was a soldier.  Their relationship is a touching, complicated, and frustrating picture of how two people can seemingly understand each other so well and yet know each other so poorly.

The characters and their relationships are the highlight of the novel.  Each member of Nyx's bounty hunter team is unique and emotionally engaging:  Khos, a Mhorian shapeshifter, frequenter of brothels, and exile from his gender-segregated homeland over his love of women;  Taite, the half-breed communications specialist from Ras Tieg who wasn't eligible for inoculations to the contagions, so experiences bad health;  his sister, Inaya, once an independent rebel for shapeshifter rights who grew to become dependent on her brother and hate her dual nature;  Anneke, a slightly androgynous, utterly dependable, and badass mercenary who used to work for Nyx's rival;  and Rhys, who we'll get to later.  The secondary players are just as well drawn.

The storyline is decent, although a conflict that lasts hundreds of years probably isn't economically or politically feasible.  This plot convenience didn't disturb me too much given that it served to underline the damage done to and by Nyx and her team.  The ubiquitous atrocities are well portrayed and embolden the text with believable details.  It is because of, rather than despite, the effects of the war that I came to care deeply about Nyx and Rhys: my heart broke when I found out what happened to her at the front and why he left Chenja.

The plotting is the roughest at the beginning.  God's War begins with a great first line: "Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert."  However, the first chapters are a bit clunky and veer dangerously close to flat stereotypes.  Hurley later noted that she wrote the first 50 pages without a plot in mind in order to get an idea of the world she was exploring.  The storyline was filled in later.  The break between this initial material and the rest of the novel is evident.  Later on, the characters begin to deepen and ripen like a fine wine and the storyline gets stronger.  It is as if the author and her subjects finally got over the awkwardness they felt when first meeting each other and got on with telling the story.

God's War may have been a Tiptree Award nominee, but it would be too easy to categorize it as feminist and leave it at that.  Oh sure, Hurley explores gender issues and contrasts the roles of women in two very different societies.  However, I read it as a story about the suffering of displaced people, women included.

The entire planet is barely fit for habitation, only partially transformed from a hellish nightmare into an environment that can support life.  Bombs have contaminated the landscape with contagions.  Some people have mutated into shapeshifters or magicians that can control bugs used for tech.  Others have left the persecution of their homelands only to find new discrimination elsewhere.

One of these migrants is Rhys, who grew up as the privileged son of a powerful mullah in patriarchal Chenja.  He imagines his future self as a wealthy religious scholar insulated from combat in a vast estate accompanied by twenty to thirty wives.  Instead he finds himself in Nasheen, where all men are sent to the front in their teens.  They must fight until they reach 40 years old, an accomplishment most don't live to see.  Warfare has been going on for so long that the country is void of men, a matriarchal society where women have learned to get along without the other sex and have assumed the traditional male roles.  His navigation through this foreign civilization gives us a picture of what it is like to be removed from our comfortable existence to see how the world is really segregated.

Combine war and gender roles with questions regarding what it means to be religiously faithful and we have an author who has the courage to tackle a horde of tough topics all in one novel.  The result is ambitious and the reader is left with plenty of ideas to chew on.  I was a bit discomforted by the metaphor Hurley draws between Umayma and the Middle East.  Both are ravaged by the desert sun, frequently erupt in hostilities, and are composed of a largely Islamic population.  Umayma is a nearly inhospitable world full of brutal realities and vicious people.  I'm not ready to say that the Middle East is the same, even with its difficulties.  Hurley doesn't provide any definitive answers, but any book that purports to give you all the answers probably isn't worth reading.

          Buddha's First Noble Truth identifies the presence of suffering in life.  Sometimes, the best we can hope for is to come out the other side understanding ourselves a bit better and if we're lucky, having found a measure of peace.  Taking such a well-verbalized journey through hardship with Nyx and her companions makes me wonder where the sequels in The Bel Dame Apocrypha series, Infidel and Rapture, will travel.  I plan on reading both and encourage you to plunge right into God's War;  it is a first novel worth reading.
What do you think? Comments are welcome!
Please send them to:
palkopatty@gmail.com

Copyright 2013 Patty Palko
God's War by Kameron Hurley
Del Rey UK paperback (forthcoming)
320 pages (right)
God's War UK cover

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Links to other Kameron Hurley reviews, articles, and websites:
Kameron Hurley - Wikipedia
Kameron Hurley | author web site
God's War - Book Trailer
SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Kameron Hurley - SF Signal
The Big Idea: Kameron Hurley - Whatever

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

This page was last updated - 18 April 2013