I grew up in the 80s, when fantasy fiction largely meant the Lord of the Rings-esque fantasy world or the ‘parallel worlds’ fantasy, the same fantasy setting juxtaposed with the real world. It wasn’t until much later that I understood most of the fantasy settings I read were based on a highly sanitized Western medieval framework (Do I hear George Costanza in the background saying, “not that there’s anything wrong with that“?) I’ve found that those familiar types of settings and stories no longer hold my interest to the same degree. I live in a world that is broader, more complicated, and more importantly, has even more stories to offer that reflect different cultures and perspectives. The most satisfying stories have echoed that philosophy, stretching genre conventions, drawing upon a wider range of cultural traditions and bridging genres. God’s War has earned a place on my shortlist of fantasy books that are able to successfully breathe fresh air into the fantasy genre.
Nyxnissa is a bel dame (echoing the “Belle Dame sans Merci“) who has made her living as an assassin for the government of Nasheen, hunting down the men who have deserted posts at the war front. She’s fallen on hard times, however, and also works as a bounty hunter bringing in thieves or those dealing in illegal gene trading. Lately she’s doing a bit of that black market gene transporting as well. After serving a prison sentence, she gives up the independent work and recruits a crew. When Nyx is called to the palace by the Queen, she and her team are given a job they can’t refuse: hunting down an alien woman who has disappeared, likely into the enemy territory of Chenja. Rhys is a magician and immigrant from Chenja, where women wear the veil and men are head of household. When Nyx is recruiting for her team, Rhys agrees to work with her.
The plotting says ‘heist,’ but the setting says “Middle East in space.” It seems this world began centuries ago when it was settled by colonists from another world. Their world is at the edge of the space routes and as they’ve elected not to modernize their spaceport, off-world visitors are rare, leaving the colonists isolated. For over a century, Nasheen and Chenja have been at war. Although very different culturally, they share a similar religious foundation: all consider themselves “People of the Book” (being ill-versed in world religions, I only thought of Geradline Brooks’ People of the Book, not of the more germane “monotheistic Abrahamic religions“). (This is one book I would have benefited by reading on Kindle with Wikipedia at hand). Nyx’ disenchantment with her own religion and Rhys’ dedication to his provide an interesting contrast and social commentary. Social and religious divisions are further complicated by a marginalized class of people who have carry shapeshifting genetics.
She didn’t much like the stink and crowd of cities, but you could lose yourself in a city a lot more easily than you could out in farming communities like Mushirah. She had run to the desert and the cities for anonymity. And to die for God.
None of that had worked out very well.
Nasheen is a matriarchal government and culture; men are sent off to war and only allowed home if they reach forty. Sexuality is open and lesbian relationships are normalized, although male homosexuality is still somewhat hidden. I was half-expecting the Women’s Studies 1o1 version of matriarchy, but instead Hurley is far more nuanced. Male or female; everyone has mixed motives; varied upbringings and ethics–or lack thereof–drive them towards their decisions. As is often noted, everyone is fighting the war in their own way.
The preponderance of bugs in the magicians’ quarters made his blood sing, as if he was attuned to a bit of everything, able to touch and manipulate pieces of the world. He felt more alive here than he had anywhere else in his life, among those who spent their days coming up with new and interesting ways to kill his people.
Then there are the bugs, a world-building aspect that takes the story to a whole new level of uniqueness. Some people–‘magicians’–have the ability to manipulate the bugs and their energy. Some of the technology is hybrid-organic, and the bugs play a role in powering vehicles, lighting rooms and in healing. Magicians are the only men granted an exception to serving at the war front.
It’s a complicated set-up with a non-English foundation and Hurley doesn’t handhold. I thought it flowed reasonably well given the range of components, but it was the kind of wind that pushes you a little harder, making for an exhilarating sail. The first forty pages are virtually an independent short story; the development of the larger plot comes later, with roots in the prologue. The story ‘works’ in the China Miéville sense (and I’m thinking of Embassytown here), so take that for what it’s worth; people who don’t read much in sci-fi or fantasy may wish for more explanation and those who have little tolerance for gender dynamics might find themselves irritated. I thought the relatively straightforward plot balanced the complicated setting and ethical issues nicely.
It was engrossing, interesting, and occasionally melancholic. Nyx is truly a belle dame sans merci– she has a very bloody, culturally sanctioned job, but her lack of compassion also extends to herself. It reminded me of the torturer Glokta in Abercrombie’s The First Law series. It provides an avenue for compassionate development of a deeply flawed human.Without doubt, God’s War deserves its Nebula nomination–as well as the Arthur C. Clarke and British Sci-Fi Association nominations. That said, I’m not sure everyone would enjoy it. But if you are looking for complicated, unusual fantasy with a fast-moving plot, give this a try. I’ll certainly be moving on to the next in the series, Infidel.