God's War

Kameron Hurley
God's War Cover

God's War


Some of the best worldbuilding I've ever read

(first in a series, followed by Infidel and Rapture)

This series of novels takes place on the planet Umayma, a far-future colony world settled by peoples of varying ethnic and religious heritage. This widely diverse population is presumably descended from Earth – but it's been so many thousands of years that their origin is no longer part of their cultural consciousness.

As one would expect, this has yielded a messy, contentious global community where various societal enclaves compete with each other for land and resources (not to mention just hating each other for religious and cultural differences). It's hardly surprising that one of the results of this is a centuries-long war between two countries – for reasons neither side is really clear about any more – fomented and provisioned by a wealthy third country in which the military-industrial complex is, literally, "making a killing".

The world's magic system is based on a type of macrotechnology similar to nanotech, where instead of intelligently-engineered particles, insects ("bugtech") are used to create all sorts of technology, from vehicles to forcefields to smart fabrics to security identification features to medical healing. Different insects provide different tech properties. Only a part of the populace has the inherited genetic ability to control the insects psychically; these are the "magicians". One of the offshoots of the bugs' medical uses by magicians is the ability to heal grievous injuries – or even, under certain circumstances, resurrect those who have been killed.

Others on the planet have the genetically-inherited ability to shift form into different types of animals, to mimic inanimate objects, or to take even stranger forms such as mist. However, these "shifters" are feared and hunted to the death in some countries, and while being more accepted in others, generally tend not to reveal their true nature to anyone but their most trusted associates.

The main character, Nyx, is a Bel Dame: a government-sponsored assassin who accepts and executes "notes" (retrieval contracts, the "dead-or-alive" clause of which is often toggled to "dead") in exchange for lucrative payment. Or she was. It's quickly made clear that she has been excommunicated by her bel dame sisters (though the reason for this is not revealed at first). Now she survives – barely – by being a second-class bounty collector who no longer has government sanction and frequently operates outside the law, with the assistance of a motley team of desperadoes with varied skills, including a shifter, a magician, and weaponry experts.

It's helpful to understand that for this series, rather than meaning "beautiful woman", "Bel Dame" is an evolution of the Hebrew word for a collector of blood debts.

Nyx is one of numerous bel dames and bounty hunters who have been given a note for an off-worlder recently arrived on a spaceship, whose intent seems to be trading an alien weapon to one of the warring countries in exchange for magic technology – which will massively change the balance of power to one side. But as Nyx and her team compete with other teams of assassins to bring in the prize, it becomes apparent that there is more going on than has been revealed to the teams attempting to collect on the note.

It took me a little while to figure out of what this book reminded me, when finally it hit me: it's the same sort of world created in the series Firefly, one which might be projected from current real-world global politics, existing countries and religions, and human nature – assuming certain outcomes of wars, and an interstellar diaspora resulting in a planet colonized by a multitude of cultures.

This novel is not "easy, fast reading". The author begins the story in media res (in the thick of things), and does not engage in a lot of infodumping to explain what everything is and how the world reached its current state. Instead, these details are gradually revealed through the action and the character interaction.

However, the book is intensely interesting – and it does reward the reader with some resolution of mysteries at the end.

One of the critiques I have read of these books is the same as I have seen for Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice: that the protagonist is unfeeling and unemotional, and it is difficult to empathize with or care about the character.

I would firmly disagree with that assessment. While it is true that Nyx is a tough, hard-bitten and somewhat embittered character, as with Ancillary Justice, we gradually gain a great deal of insight as to her thoughts and motivations – and we come to understand a great deal about her character from the reactions of the people around her, who develop an intense loyalty for her despite the apparent ambivalence of their feelings about her.

This is gritty, not pretty, science fiction noir done exceptionally well – both in God's War and in its sequels, Infidel and Rapture.