God's War

Kameron Hurley
God's War Cover

God's War


This felt like a refreshing change (and if by refreshing, you mean, gritty, bloody and violent!)

'God's War' is the first in the 'Bel Dame Apocrypha' series and a book I picked up as part of a LGBTQIA speculative fiction reading challenge. Quite a few books I have read in this challenge have addressed gender and sexuality themes, and a fair few have explored matriarchal societies but this was the first one that explored a matriarchal society that wasn't all 'sunshine and flowers' and was very interesting as a result.

Our main character Nyx is a state sanctioned bounty hunter whose primary role is to execute deserters from the frontline in a never-ending religious war. The executions are brutal, typically involving the severing of heads of boys and men escaping (because it seems the loss of a head is the only way to make sure someone is dead in a world where bio-magic can rejuvenate and heal most things if one has resources). So straight away, I know I am not going to root for the 'hero' who kills for a cruel state.

And yet, there is an in-book justification to these actions, because it appears that the endless war is largely conducted via biological warfare. Corpses are hosts for all kinds of virus and contagions, and an escaped soldier from the front could be carrying something that could kill thousands, so as readers we aren't going to support it but we've a rationale for why it happens (even though I guess stopping the war would be better but no one is really interested in that).

The war is between two cultures on a colonised planet (I assume from Earth thousands of years ago, but who knows). The dominant religion on the planet, which is relatively isolationist draws heavily on Islamic-like cultures where faith and religion are highly important. Add to that a society that effectively runs on bugs, (vehicles, lighting, electricity, communications etc, all seem to run on harnessing the power of insects) and we have a wonderful setting for a book which feels unique, yet familiar at the same time.

The general plot of the book is Nyx falls on hard times due to her actions, goes to jail, gets stripped of her Bel Dame licence and forms a bounty hunter group before she gets a big contract from the Queen of Nasheen which then kicks the story into gear.

So what did I like about it? First of all, the setting. It's SUPERB. We have a wonderfully realised world which feels so well crafted it's untrue. You can see, smell, taste everything in the dusty streets, or sweaty boxing gyms of heady brothels. The planet seems to have five main nations, of which the two are engaged in a possibly hundreds of years of perpetual war. Nasheen is a matriarchal society, whereas Chenja is the patriarchal one. Taking a step back, they feel very much like two sides of the same coin. Neither nation state appears to be a 'just' one and one is left feeling that the war has no purpose and leaves unbelievable misery in it's wake year on year.

I loved how Nasheen was presented, it could have been so easy to paint the matriarchal world as the 'intelligent' or 'empathetic' one, but instead Hurley presents a matriarchal society that is cruel, violent and oppressive. Gender roles are flipped, in that because women are strong and powerful, that boys should be 'protected' and not be cannon fodder. I love how the infantilising of men was handled in the book, it mirrors how 'helpless women' are depicted in fiction and society, without ever feeling that you are getting hit on the head with 'here is the message I want you to take away'.

Chenjan society may feel a little more 'familiar' in that their society is patriarchal with strict gender roles and women are veiled and seen as mothers and domestics, and because all the men are sent to die at the front, the powerful men have homes with ten or twenty wives. Whilst there are 'breeding compounds' in both societies to create new soldiers I loved how the birth of a boy in one culture is a prize, and in the other is a tragedy, even though the fate will be the same.

From the observer looking it, it feels clear that everyone on the planet is following the same god (and the aliens seem like Christian missionaries too for me), and yet their views on faith and gender roles are so very different. It's wonderfully realised. The reader will recognise the call to prayer and how depictions of gods and prophets are understood. At times I didn't know how I felt about 'reimagined Islam' but after reading I don't have a sense that the book is fetishizing Islam, nor do I feel it is in anyway insensitive, whilst absolutely telling the reader how pointless religious war is. The book never spells it out for you, but after reading, one wants to scream 'stop the war today and recognise what you have in common'. But this is a book, filled with not nice people, living in a horrible world.

The cast of supporting characters is diverse. Most of Nyx's gang come from other countries, and it is through them that we learn about their cultures and their reasons for being where they are. It's kind of cool to read about Nyx and Rhys who probably love each other, but in Nyx's culture sleeping with men is considered a bit lowbrow, whereas Rhy can't look at a strong unveiled woman without being conflicted. We've got a guy who had to leave his strictly segregated nation where male homosexuality is the norm because he's straight, and another who is in the closet, because to be gay would mean execution.

In some hands I guess this book could be viewed as a diversity tick list and be far weaker as a result, but I never felt it reading it. Likewise, in less skilled hands the book could be viewed as intolerant and misandrist - again it doesn't really come across. The world is shitty, the author isn't. The world is diverse, and yet it is authoritarian and most people can't 'fit in'. I love the book can show you racism that makes you uneasy, whilst never feeling the need to tell you it's bad. The writing and depiction of events tells you it's horrible, not the author's voice.

I've talked a lot about the setting (which I loved!!) but what about the story? Essentially, it's a bio-punk violent sci-fi thriller. There's lots of twists and suspicions of double crosses. You think you know who the bad guys are, then quickly realise it is mostly everyone. It's exceptionally violent and murder, genocide and torture are never far away. It's feels very much like sci-fi grimdark where you quickly expect everyone you care about to be tortured and killed, so it definitely isn't for everyone. I haven't read anything this violent in a while and to be honest it hit the spot.

As for the story, I kind of like that the reader is thrown into the world. At times the story is a bit hard to follow, as if the author knows who everyone is and where they are and forgets the reader may not be there. It feels weird reviewing because I have talked about how much I love the setting and I generally loved the characters also - none of them are particularly lovable but in the context of the book, I didn't hate them either. I guess though, there isn't a particularly memorable story that I'll come back to with fond memories, so the book is good, but not great.