“The smog in Mushtallah tasted of tar and ashes; it tasted like the war.”
I had to remind myself to breathe when I was reading Infidel. Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame series is simply amazing. So many themes packed into each page; action, honor, faith, regret, resolve, all woven into a fast-moving plot, character exploration and innovative world-building. It feels real and harsh and heartbreaking. When I finished late at night, I felt rather the same way I felt when I finished The Last Argument of Kings, only more so.
Infidel takes place six years after the events of the first book, God’s War. The countries of Nasheen and Chenja remain at war with each other, as they have been for the last hundred years. Nyx worked as a bel dame for Nasheen, a government enforcer/assassin, but after making some very questionable decisions, she’s been working a mercenary. She has a new team, a young shifter boy named Eshe and a hardened ex-veteran, Suha. The story begins in the midst of bodyguard detail for a diplomat’s daughter, in the setting dreaded by all bodyguards everywhere, the crowded shopping district. Nyx realizes they are being boxed in and manages to scare off one assassin and behead another. When she learns the assassin might be a rogue bel dame, she journeys to the headquarters of the guild and meets with a former colleague. What follows is a fast-paced hunt through the countries of Umayma.
As the second in the Bel Dame series, more details of the world are fleshed (ha-ha) out, so to speak. For those that struggled with the world-building in the first book, Hurley is kinder here, filling in more details about the neighboring countries and the history of various peoples. A little more is also filled in about the emigration from the moon to Unamya, and the unclean areas that remain even after colonizing. The insect-based magic and technology continues to play a vital role in the plot, and despite my own bug-aversion, it’s very interesting.
Plotting is fast. There’s more nation-politics than I usually like in my book, but it is built organically, connected to personal actions and motives that make it both plausible and interesting. Something in Hurley’s plotting feels unusual to me, and I think it’s partly her ability to sustain tension through small event arcs, and then repeating them at escalating frequency. It has the satisfying feeling of building to a crescendo, resolving small conflicts and then creating bigger ones. It helps too that the world she’s built allows for a certain kinds of rejuvenation, provided one has the money, connections and time. What I discovered this time was that very little of the details were predictable, and I loved that.
“‘So what the hell’s wrong with me?’ Nyx eased off the marble slab.
‘Besides your deviant moral flexibility and severe phobia of emotional commitment?’ Yahfia asked.
‘I consider those virtues,’ Nyx said.“
Characterization is outstanding. Nyx is not an easy person to like, but she has an idea of honor and protection that makes her accessible. Her cynicism brings a dry, biting humor to her character and her story. Rhys, an educated exile, provides a way for Hurley to engage in more sophisticated cultural analysis. One of the fascinating aspects of the story is the attraction that Nyx and Rhys have for each other despite enormous cultural and emotional differences.
“‘If you weren’t what you are, and I wasn’t what I am, we’d both be dead,’ Rhys said. ‘And we would have nothing to speak of.'”
Why have more people not read this series? I highly recommend it, particularly if you enjoy some of the darker fantasy such as Weeks or Abercrombie. I particularly recommend it because of the nuanced character development and the unusual world-building. Definitely personal library-worthy.