Tuesday, April 16, 2013

God's War by Kameron Hurley

God’s War by Kameron Hurley is the first entry in the Bel Dame Apocrypha series published by Night Shade Books. A synopsis can be found here (non-affiliate link). God’s War is a singular and searing story told in an utterly unique voice. God’s War takes place on Umayma-- an inhospitable world inimical to human life. On this unwelcome rock, mankind has plunged itself into unremitting holy war. Using this crucible as her backdrop, Hurley slowly pulls her characters apart and presents them to the reader piece by piece. What is revealed under the nihilistic, cancerous surface is a careful study on the human condition. It is a wonderful, if disjointed, tale.

As God’s War is unremittingly brutal to its character, it is also unapologetically difficult to its readers. Hurley does not coddle the reader with background information or gentle introductions; rather, she opens with a brutal and memorable first line:
“Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.”
From there, it is up to the reader to keep up. Jargon and slang are thrown about by the narrative’s characters that will have no meaning to the reader; the details are only made clear later. While this may be off-putting to some, I found it incredibly refreshing. It makes the opening of the novel direct and straight-to-the-chase. It creates a sense of mystery and forces the reader to come to grips with the narrative on its own terms-- not the reader’s terms.

God’s War also peddles in a number of familiar themes: violence, religion, destiny. While the story is brutal and uncompromising, the influx of such titles in the genre has inured many readers to such things. Yet, Hurley finds a way to get under the reader’s skin, figuratively, by centering the ‘magic’ system on insects. So while readers may have become habituated to the horrors of war, many are still unsettled by bugs. In this way, Hurley gives her story an edge, a sense of otherness, that is increasingly difficult to find.

Hurley’s greatest achievement in her world-building is creating a believable means to deconstruct and tinker with gender roles and social structures. Central to the narrative is the centuries long holy war between Nasheen and Chenja. The societies of Nasheen and Chenja have adapted in face of the brutalities of war. Nasheen has pursued a path of eugenics and forced conscription of women; Chenja embraced polygamy. Each creates societal repercussions. In Nasheen, men become expendable commodities while women become priceless breeding machines and leaders. In Chenja nearly the reverse happens.

Why is this so important? It creates a cognitive dissonance in the reader. Within this mental gap, Hurley thrusts her character development, breaking past stereotypes and cultural norms, and letting the reader experience the heart of the characters. Without this, Nyx could easily have been dismissed as a woman playing the tough guy role. Yet, with the careful world building you have to acknowledge there is no ‘tough guy’. Nyx is something unique to the setting that must be experienced and appreciated on her own terms.

At the heart of God’s War is Nyx-- Hurley has crafted a simply amazing character in her. While the narrative may be disjointed in telling its story, it is perfect for the careful, steady reveal of Nyx’s character. The story of God’s War is distinctly secondary to the experience of discovering Nyx.

Much ink has been spilled in discussing strong characters. What is it that makes a character strong? Too often the response is male-centered due to cultural dictates, and those cultural contagions infect our stories. Hurley has inoculated her story and crafted a response to the question with Nyx. Nyx is a strong character, yet she isn’t physically strong, faster, of special birth, or any other traditional identifiers of “strength.”

Nyx is strong because of her unbending will and desire to control her own destiny. Nyx is a character who stared nihilism in the face and forced it to retreat. Her faith in everything has been broken, beaten, and betrayed. In the face of ultimate rejection, she refused to be a victim and declared ownership of herself. While she may wander, she is not lost.

Providing balance to Nyx, and preventing her from becoming a caricature of the hardboiled anti-hero, is her relationship with Rhys. Via this relationship Hurley humanizes Nyx. What is truly amazing is how Hurley manages this without turning Nyx and Rhys into a sexual relationship. Instead, their relationship is a delicate and ephemeral thing centered on Rhys calming voice, gentle hands, and mannerisms. Scenes where Nyx is paralyzed by fear and indecision, only to be soothed by Rhys reading her to sleep are heart touching.

The only real negative to God’s War is the actual story. It is disjointed at best, insensible at worst. So while there are hints of a larger meta-plot, none of them really make sense until the very end of the book when a few clearer hints are dropped. The narrative frequently jumps around both in time and physical location within the narrative accomplishing little beyond confusing the reader for a few paragraphs. Various side plots crop up concerning the various characters’ back stories but rarely lead anywhere. But, as the opening of God’s War was challenging to the reader, I am hoping the overall plot of the Bel Dame Apocrypha follows the same pattern and becomes clearer in the subsequent novels.

God’s War is amazing. It is a singular and unique read. Kameron Hurley’s voice throbs with a brutal honesty that rocks the reader from scenes of hyper violence, shotgun decapitation, to touching gentleness: Rhys taping Nyx’s hands. In amongst the violence, nihilism, and insanity of Umayma, Hurley skillfully guides the reader along a path to the center of her characters, forcing the reader to question the human condition. God’s War is a success on so many levels; I cannot recommend the book enough.

Memorable Quotes:
"Boys either came home at forty or came home in a bag. No exceptions.
"They were godless women who murdered men and bred like flies."
"He suddenly wanted this strong, capable woman to hold him, Nasheenian or not. He wanted her strength, her certainty."
"I judged myself."
"Nyx went on."
Kobo: God's War by Kameron Hurley (non-affiliate links)
Image Source: Kameron Hurley
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 9781597803007

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