I had seen bits and pieces about God’s War floating around the internet, but never really took a second look. Then the author posted a list of Stuff Fans of Ancillary Justice Will Like on Twitter and I knew I had to get copies of everything on there. One quick tweet exchange later, I had God’s War on hold at the library. (Just in case anyone missed the memo, I think Ancillary Justice is about the coolest thing to happen in all of 2013. I’m reading anything that comes even close to that level of awesome.)
Kameron Hurley provides aggressive, award-winning commentary on the genre in addition to writing fiction. Saying that she is active in equality discussions is rather like saying that the Black Panthers were involved in civil rights. When talks turn to women, LGBT, or anything in that vein, Hurley is a scathing, incandescent partisan. God’s War is not merely a story that she wants to tell, it’s a Molotov cocktail lobbed at the crumbling edifice of SFF white patriarchy. Hurley and her work are probably not to everyone’s taste, but that doesn’t mean that everyone shouldn’t be reading her.
As for this book, well, where to start? It’s the far future, on a war-torn planet that has long since gone down the toilet. The population appears to be multi-racial, but mono-religious; to wit, people are different colors, but all members of sects descended from Islam. There are bugs and magicians. The latter have some control over the former, as well as healing and boxing skills. No fireball spells here, just clouds of wasps. Each society provides a different example of gender politics and sexual orientation tolerance, so we get run of the mill, oppressive patriarchies, matriarchy by default because the men are all dead on the front lines, men persecuted for liking men too much, men persecuted for liking women too much, and so on and so forth. It would be fascinating anthropology if they weren’t blowing each other up so much, though I suppose the anthropologists would require a high tolerance for beetles, roaches, and other creepy crawlies.
Hurley writes with graceful understatement, “Nyx is not the world’s best person, and her planet has some issues.” Indeed. We’ve already seen that most of the planet is busily engaged in bombing the crap out of each other, so let’s take a look at the people lighting the fuses. Most of the time, we see the world through Nyx’s eyes. (There are a couple of other viewpoint characters, but they only comprise maybe 15% of the narrative.) Nyx is a former superhuman killer who has been reduced to dodgy bounty hunting. She is cynical and abrasive, a womanizer, possibly a drug and alcohol addict, and extraordinarily good at killing people. She comes from Najeen, one half of the worst war going on, while Rhys, the other main viewpoint character, comes from Najeen’s mortal enemy Chenjan. In a wilful subversion of traditional roles, Rhys is the vulnerable, pious character, while Nyx kicks butt, sleeps around, and probably burps and scratches a lot.
The above are fairly obvious ways in which Hurley attacks equality questions, but going one level deeper yields even more subversive fun. When thinking about tropes that are most male-dominated, I would have to include war stories, especially religious war, assassins and bounty hunters, noir, and self-destructive fighting types with dark pasts and/or unhealthy addictions. Almost every book, game, or movie I can think of with these tropes involves Manly Men doing Stuff Men Gotta Do. Hurley, apparently inspired by a Michael Moorcock quote wondering where the female Conan is, decided to roll all of these into one female lead. Thus Nyx was born. As a bonus, Rhys is kind of a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, if the MPD happened to be male, Muslim, had some facility with magically controlled bugs, and didn’t do much to reverse the lead’s entropic tide.
As it is, Nyx kills, drinks, curses, and muscles her way through the Najeen and Chenjan underworlds, hitting most of the usual noir checkpoints along the way. (Horrendously convoluted plot? Check. Whores, underground fighters, and corrupt elites? Check. Tough talking people with possible hearts of gold? Check. And so on.) Many bullets are expended and many (not so) innocent bystanders are pulverized in the production of this book. It is, of course, great fun, though some of it takes a strong constitution (or weak imagination) to get through. I’m not just talking about alternative lifestyles or violence here – the reader should be prepared for a lot of insects. If one doesn’t want to think of roaches and beetles tumbling out of someone’s sleeves every ten pages or so, looking elsewhere might be best.
There is a great deal in this book that I am not addressing. Taken in isolation, the world building is unique and engaging, the characters are entertaining, and the plot is serviceable. If there are some technical glitches, they are usually overshadowed by frenetic pace and action. Remove the isolation walls though, and God’s War is an incendiary tract aimed at the heart of the genre. One can read it without the subversion and aggression and still have a good time, but the book’s real power lies in the way it smashes head on into the wall of white male privilege. I’m sure Hurley has her enemies and this book its detractors, but I think the importance of her voice (and others) cannot be overstated. I’m signing on for more of Nyx and her crew.