god’s war review

I just finished writing this up for MITSFS's reviews site, and since it'll take a while to post there I thought I'd share it here with you. (Edit: It's up at the MITSFS review site now.)

Title: God's War

Author: Kameron Hurley
Year: 2011
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Reviewer: Kevin Riggle

God's War is another book I first encountered when John Scalzi ran a Big Idea piece by its author on his blog Whatever. (If you don't follow the Big Idea pieces, you're missing out on one of the better tools that isn't "friends' recommendations" for discovering good new SF I've found. Less so lately, for some reason — an overabundance of urban fantasy? — but for a while I was adding every other book to my Amazon wishlist and buying every third. The comments to the entries are filled with people complaining in jest about the pain induced by the post series in their wallets.)

Anyhow, I read the post, thought "that sounds kind of cool," and promptly got distracted by being depressed about work and job-hunting. A couple months later, I was in MITSFS, bored and with nothing to do, and found it on the new book shelf and and got sucked into it. It's a very gritty SFnal world — none of the main characters are people who I'd want to meet in a dark alley. Everything, including 'bakkies' (real-life South African slang for pickup trucks, as Wikipedia informs me), is powered by bioengineered insects, which are controllable by certain people called magicians, like the character Rhys, through some (perhaps pheromonal?) process. Several characters have strange genetics which allows them to shift into animal form — Khos, another member of the team, has a dog form. And our main character, Nyx, is an ex-bel dame, a former member of an elite squad of assassins who hunt down deserters and other threats to the country, and who are a political force in their own right. The story has as its backdrop an interminable war between the two major powers of the planet, Nasheen and Chenja, in which Nyx fought for Nasheen and from which Rhys is a Chenjan draft-dodger. Now Nyx's team is assigned to bring in an off-worlder and potential gene pirate who's playing both sides, but who also might have the information to tip the balance of power once and for all. But the bel dames and a rival bounty hunter are also on the pirate's trail, and they have their own purposes.

It's a pretty brutal story, as befits its resource-poor desert setting (what TV Tropes would call a Crapsack World) and its bounty-hunter subject matter — lots of heads, fingers, ears being chopped off. The tech is advanced enough that most injuries up to death and having your head cut off can be repaired, for a price. The characters are all seriously flawed, concerned mostly with their own tenuous survival, but also capable of nobility. There's a lot of fictional politics and religion in the story, as you might imagine from the title — there are several countries' futures at stake in the book, and they all have different dominant religions (all apparently based on Islam) and social and cultural mores which have affected the characters' lives for better or worse. Nasheen, where much of the story takes place, sends its men and many of its women off to war, so many so that women run the country; Chenja is much more what we might imagine of a conservative Mustlim country; Ras Tieg is home to a large number of shifters which it is busily oppressing. The tensions between the countries are reflected in the tensions between the characters, and those relationships provided a lot of the interest of the book to me. For all that, the book never felt preachy to me — all of these societies were broken, in one way or another. (I don't know the author's background, but nothing I read in the book suggested that a Christian or atheist society written by her would be any less flawed; I would have thrown it across the room if it had. It is not a book to rag on Muslims.)

I wasn't bowled over by the bug-tech, though I found it competently executed, and there were a couple world-building details that didn't ring quite true to me. (The most notable is a couple references to using "sand-cats" — which I have no reason to believe are not large, carnivorous felids — being used as beasts of burden. While I convinced myself after a while that using meat-eaters as beasts of burden isn't a completely impossible idea, cf. wolves/dogs (though they're both omnivores and pack animals, not solitary obligate carnivores), I don't think they'd be my first choice of beast of burden in a desert environment, even if I had the story's ridiculously advanced bioengineering technology. I considered letting it throw me out of the story for a while and then decided that I was being ridiculous.)

So I liked the book. I'm not sure I'll pick up the second volume of a planned trilogy (due out in October), mostly due to a current lack of interest in the kind of brutality in evidence, but that's mostly me hunting other pleasures in my fiction and not the book's fault, and thankfully the first book stands well on its own. I've already leant my copy to a friend, and would definitely recommend it to people who enjoy the works of authors like Joe Abercrombie and Richard K. Morgan.

(Amazon link)

(I'm struck, as I format this to fit your screen, how excellent a cover that is for the book and how much it tells you about those characters. Consider who's wearing the burnous. If you thought that the female character was dressed in fewer clothes on the cover merely to attract readers, you'd be wrong, and this is a plot point.)