Reading God’s War by Kameron Hurley

Another review for Interzone from 2013

Gods War

Kameron Hurley, Del Rey, 309pp

Orignally published in the US in 2011, Kameron Hurley’s God’s War belatedly arrives in the UK already clutching a British Fantasy Society award as well as a nomination for the BFSA’s Best Novel award. It has also attracted some very vocal admirers from among sf readers. God’s War seems to be one of those novels that was very much in tune with the sf zeitgeist when it was first published, yet I struggle to understand precisely why this is so. It is not that God’s War is a bad novel – indeed, there is much about it to admire – but I find it deeply problematic.

The novel’s focus is Nyx, a young woman who is a former government assassin, or bel dame, but who now works as a bounty-hunter, leading a group of mercenaries who dispense state-sanctioned summary justice. It’s a hard way of life and there is no room for sentiment. The reader is given to understand that Nasheen is a demanding country in which to live, and it polices itself accordingly. It also demands much of its citizens. The planet Umayma, of which Nasheen is part, appears to have been populated by an intergalactic Islamic diaspora – the circumstances of this are not made clear, and contacts with offworlders are few, and discourage. The countries of Umayma turn inward. Some of them are at war with one another and have been for what seems like centuries, the reasons for that war either forgotten or simply not mentioned.

Of the participants in this holy war, Nasheen’s is a matriarchal culture; every aspect of life is focused on the business of war. Men are sent to the front and allowed only to return once they reach the age of forty, assuming they last that long. Once they return they remain subordinate to women. It is a civil duty among the women to bear children in order to raise the next generation of soldiers but other than that, they are free to run their lives as they wish. Some choose to be mothers while the rest take on other jobs, as they choose. Men visiting from other countries are frequently disturbed to find themselves harassed in the streets by drunk and violent women, much as they might themselves treat women in their own countries.

One might begin to suspect that God’s War should be read as some sort of role-reversal feminist commentary, harking back to a time when women writers were trying to imagine what a world might look like were it not run by men. In part, the novel might be just that, given Hurley apparently intended Nyx to be a response to a question posed by Michael Moorcock in Wizardry and Wild Romance (1987): why is there no female Conan? But Umayma is no Hyboria, and Nyx is a far more nuanced creation than Howard’s barbarian swordsman. On the other hand, she certainly does not baulk at extreme violence, but Hurley is by no means inviting us to consider the mind-numbing effects of so much casual brutality, any more than I believe she is attempting a feminist novel. This, simply, is how Umayma is.

In the end, however,violence can get us only so far. The plot, when it finally gets going, enables us to experience certain other aspects of Umayma in greater detail, in particular the odd bug technology that is the novel’s most unusual feature, along with the insistence that things we take for granted, such as electricity, have somehow fallen under the purview of ‘magicians’. At this point too, we see perhaps a little more clearly the complex web of only half-admitted emotional attachments that bind this ill-assorted group of mercenaries together. At times, Hurley over-sentimentalises the tentative relationship developing between Nyx and Rhys, the barely competent magician from Chenja, framed as two people who barely know how to articulate their thoughts about one another yet who are clearly drawn to one another.

In a way, their relationship provides a metonym for the entire novel. It’s raw, jagged, not always terribly well-articulated. So much about this story is left unsaid, not as a narrative ploy but because no one seems to know. The infrastructure required to support a war seems not to exist; one might almost doubt the war’s existence as well. The bug technology, attractive as it is, relies on the reader’s connivance to work at all, and nothing seems to quite hang together.

And yet, having said all that, there is still an odd energy about the novel that draws me back. I don’t particularly like it but it is not a novel that asks to be liked. It is a novel that asks not to be ignored, which is a challenge to the reader, and all the more interesting for that!