Science fiction and fantasy                                            

God's War

by Kameron Hurley


It took me a long time to get around to finishing God's War. I picked it up a couple of times over the past two years, and although I enjoyed what I read I was never in the mood for something so bleak. The early chapters are the definition of grimdark.

The main character, Nyx, is a bel dame, a government-sanctioned killer whose main work involves hunting down deserters and chopping off their heads. In the country of Nasheen all men under forty must serve at the front in a vicious and perpetual war. Those who came back contaminated from the front risk the lives of hundreds of others.

However, Nyx is in trouble with her fellow bel dames for illegally selling her womb to gene pirates. She's out of money, ill-equipped, and running very low on allies. But she doesn't learn how bad things can get until a dodgy government deal with an alien goes wrong, and Nyx is sent in to clear things up.

The world building in God's War is astounding. The planet of Umayma is an interstellar backwater, scarcely visited by starships, hostile to strangers, and relatively primitive. Insectile technology runs everything from their transport across harsh deserts to their medicine. Magicians able to manipulate the bugs can make them do a host of tasks, including rebuilding bodies, often with spare parts from other people.

However, the world-building is troubling given its clear basis on the Middle East. Almost everyone in the story is very religious, on both sides of the conflict. The place-names (Faleen, Punjai, Chenja) are unambiguously derived from the Middle East. Strict societies, gender divides, and regular calls to prayer leave no doubt about which religion inspired this novel. Nyx is an atheist, having lost her faith after a trauma in her past. All of this makes it very easy to interpret God's War as a diatribe against religion, painting it as the cause of all war and suffering. Fortunately I believe Kameron Hurley's points are more sophisticated, but choosing to take a brutal, grimdark tone does make the anti-religious interpretation possible.

Oddly, this novel is partly a love story. But it's one featuring a character so warped by her own character and social expectations that she's barely able to love. Nyx can hardly even acknowledge the emotion, and she sees displays of feelings as weakness. By gender-flipping the stereotypical macho hero, the author highlights how absurd and damaging gendered expectations of men can be. Because all the men are at the front, women take on all other roles in society, from high political office to running boxing rings. Breeding and child-rearing are farmed off to a few, so that everyone else can focus on being greasy hard-nuts with stainless steel hearts.

It's not all about hard-hitting points. I warmed to Rhys, an opposition deserter with some magical skills who joins Nyx's crew. I was intrigued by Inaya, who seemed to have rejected just about everyone, including herself. And I rooted for other members of Nyx's crew of bounty hunters, particularly Khos. Khos can shift forms into a dog, which makes him a second-class citizen in Nasheen.

God's War is breakneck and full of twists and gory surprises. It's a journey with a high body count, yet one I wanted to go on because the characters were unexpectedly deep and endearing, in spite of their violent exteriors.

19th August 2015

Book Details

Year: 2011

Categories: Books

  Science fiction


  Not For The Squeamish  

If you like this, try:

On A Red Station, Drifting cover    

On A Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard
A refugee magistrate flees to a space station that has seen better days, and puts herself at the mercy of her extended family in this novella. Part of the Xuya universe series.

Monstress Volume One: Awakening cover    

Monstress Volume One: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
A teenager searches for answers about herself and her war-torn past, whilst a monster stirs inside her. A graphic novel.

The Gabble And Other Stories cover    

The Gabble And Other Stories by Neal Asher
This collection of short stories set in the Polity universe features man, machine and alien testing the limits of what they will do to survive.

5 star rating

Review ©

Source: own copy