I have so deleted so many openings of this review. Objectively, if there is such a thing, God’s War by Kameron Hurley is probably a three-star outing – there’s an ugly, badly handled time transition about a quarter of the way through the book, and the central mystery is maybe less mysterious and more perfunctory than it could be – but whoo boy, what a world. And more importantly, what a girl. Nyxnessa is a failed bel dame, which on this dusty, war torn planet is something like a Bene Gesserit crossed with Han Solo, but more badass than the sum of her parts, and that is saying something. She burns with her whiskey-fueled near-honor, getting by with something more terrible than will. And will is a pretty terrible thing in my book. This is a sticky, bloody little smash-and-grab that rang my bells in just the right ways.
So, can we talk world-building for a minute? I usually make the ward against evil when world-building is invoked, because the term can be code for infodumps up the ass and a coy, heraldic sense of history. Lo! You remember, Bob, how this rock, which is called Tdfkdhkasjja in the old tongue, was the site for the Blahblahblah of K’thizzle. But, when you get down to it, genre exercises that take place on other planets have to let you know the parameters of their cultures, have to set them up and knock them down, and this does so, with feeling. The smart way to go is to drop the reader in the middle of confusing terms and brutal realities, and then assume your readers have access to wikis that will explain what a bakkie is, and if they don’t, then for sure they can figure it out. Go, smart readers, go. The language here is stylistic genre, not afraid to cuss or drop a bunch of undefined terms on you, letting you catch up. The planet in question has been colonized by post-Muslim societies – I say post-Muslim because there’s a lot of ornament from other religions – like the prayer wheels I associate most strongly with Tibetan Buddhism.
The world itself is Dune-ish, unsuited to humans to begin with, but then even more so because of the holy war that’s been raging for who knows how long. Nyx is the brutal daughter of this environment, a scriptured place where the men have been killed for so long, and so thoroughly that these patrifocal cultures have had to come to terms with almost entirely female populations – at least in the two cultures that are at the center of the conflict. All of the central players in this story are on the outs with their cultures in one way or another: too gay, not enough gay, orthodox, believers, non-believers, alien, and so on.
In another mood, this might have felt like the usual suspects school of character development, a Venn diagram of needs and aversions, one overlapping the other – too schematic. I guess even in the right mood it is, because I’m saying this out loud and believe it, but I didn’t really care as the story was unfolding. Nyx is such a towering badass, such a bitch, that I was wide eyed watching her cut a swath in the most profane, bloody and personal of ways. She’s so shuddering and intimate in her brutality – there was this moment when she freaks, and calls her – for lack of a better word – love interest, and orders him to read to her – she’s functionally illiterate – and it twisted my insides. If she’s scared and doubting, and she’s the scariest, undoubtingest thing ever, then I have cause to fear. Whoo boy.
Did I say love interest? That is not what I meant. She’s certainly got a strange watchfulness with her relationship with Rhys, an orthodox man who out-classes her in most ways, his straight, dark-skinned, controlled body and mind in contrast with her sloppy, heterodox brutality. It’s godamn sexy to watch them hate each other, need each other, read to each other over their flaws and weaknesses, strengths and wills. As a smash-and-grab, this plot moves over acres of land, into palaces and out into the desert, through disparate cultures, and the way their bodies are read and changed, their sexualities coded and re-coded – hot damn, this is some interesting stuff. This is a world full of people who tape up their knuckles and brawl, and the brawling is like sex and death, and as important as both.
This claims to be the first in a series, and even though the ending is downbeat and uncompleted – almost frustrating as it shakes the central characters loose like water off a shaking dog’s back – I see how you are setting it up for the next – I find it almost impossible to imagine coming back to this place, and I mean that in the best way. I don’t want completeness from a character like Nyx. I don’t want her to sort it out and find peace. I want to keep imagining her cutting this bright, bloody path across the world, drunk and high, tumbling with boxer girls, pining. She’s la belle dame sans merci and amen to that.
(I received an ARC from NetGalley.com)