We’re reading GOD’S WAR by Kameron Hurley

17 Jan

Can a chick with a gun carry an uncomfortable and vivid debut novel? Certainly, says Nina Allan

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Del Rey, PPB £12

The holy war of this novel’s title is a thousand years old. Far-future humans have made a precarious home on the inhospitable desert planet of Umamya, but religious differences have thrown them into conflict. The war has been raging for so long that whole economies now depend on it, and for Umamya’s various ethnic, religious and political factions and alliances the state of being at war has become a way of life. For the novel’s protagonist as for many others, violence is quite literally a livelihood. Nyx is a Bel Dame, one of an elite company of female assassins and bounty hunters whose job is to track down and execute “notes”, for large sums of money and a particular kind of diplomatic immunity. The notes they seek are most commonly male deserters from the front, but on occasion the Bel Dames are tasked with hunting down political fugitives or, as the action of this novel progresses, alien dignitaries with dubious motives for being on Umamya in the first place.

As God’s War was first published in the USA in 2011, it was perhaps inevitable that I read a lot about this novel before I read one word of the actual text. Much of the commentary was positive, to say the least, with critics and readers alike hailing both author and novel as radical new presences in the genre. I absorbed this information without being wholly convinced by it. Nothing I read about the plot (all-encompassing war in the far future) or the characters (kick-ass female assassins) came across as either particularly new or particularly appealing.

It has often seemed to me that the world of genre publishing has become disconcertingly like the film world in recent years, with agents and commissioning editors reluctant to look at a novel unless its plot and premise can be handily summed up in one brief tag-line or killer pitch. As in Hollywood, simplistic marketing of this kind will all too frequently result in a succession of identikit novels, each hailed as ‘the new’ or ‘the next’ variant on a formula that sold well the last time. One of the less recognised tragedies of this state of affairs is the misdirection of a potentially appreciative audience away from novels whose beauty and complexity cannot be adequately conveyed in a three-line paragraph; the smothering and simplification of subtle works of imagination beneath cheaply generic “chicks with guns” cover images.

The driving force of God’s War is not the war itself, nor its violent action (of which there is plenty), but the art and linguistic dexterity employed in its creation. From the very first page, Kameron Hurley immerses the reader fully inside her world, and the tools she uses to do this are one-hundred percent a writer’s tools: vivid characterisation, a tangible sense of place, and a love of language so innate I found God’s War to be the most satisfying and achieved straight-up genre novel I’ve read since China Miéville’s The Scar.

The sun bled across the big angry sky. The call box at the cantina was busted, so Nyx walked. The way was unpaved, mostly sand and gravel. Her feet were bruised, bleeding and bare, but she hadn’t felt much of anything down there in a good long while. Back at the butchers’, she had traded her good sandals for directions out of the fleshpots, too dopey to figure the way out on her own. Under the burnous, she wore little more than a dhoti and breast binding. She had an old baldric, too – her dead partner’s. All the sheaths were empty and had been for some time. She remembered some proverb about meeting God empty-handed, but her knees weren’t calloused any more – not from praying, anyway. She had already been to hell. One prayer more or less wouldn’t make any difference. (p.4)

Hurley leaves us in no doubt that Nyx is a character to be reckoned with. She’s no stranger to killing, and she is ruthless in pursuit of her goals. She has little time for weakness, in herself or in others. But if the story of God’s War shows us anything, it is that Nyx’s harshness has been fully earned. Here is a woman who has lived her whole life in a war environment. At the start of the novel she has lost everything many readers would take for granted as basic human rights: home, family, innocence. Not only has she seen those she loved die in horrific ways, she has also had to face the fact of her own capacity for betrayal. If she is unforgiving of anyone, it is herself. Plenty has already been written about Nyx’s propensity for violence, much less about her bravery, her fierce capacity for loyalty, her intelligence and her instinct for survival. Throughout God’s War Nyx shows a resourcefulness and a defiance of the odds that I found wholly inspiring. Nothing about her is gratuitous – note the word Hurley chooses to end the paragraph below is not ‘destroy’ but ‘rebuild’:

Her burnous was tied only at the neck and hung behind her like a cape, so he saw her without any pretence, any added bulk, no deception. Her eyes were hard and black, and she looked at him the way she looked at everything else in her life – with cold determination, a willingness to part with anything she knew, she saw, she had to accomplish whatever she set herself to. She would leave him. She would leave Inaya… The world could burn around her, the cities turn to dust, the cries of a hundred thousand fill the air, and she would get up after the fire died and walk barefoot and burned over the charred soil in search of clean water, a weapon, a purpose. She would rebuild. (p.231)

Those who love science fiction as the literature of ideas will find plenty to please them in God’s War. In the course of Hurley’s frank account of the novel’s troubled journey to publication I was both bemused and frustrated to read of how several commissioning editors found it difficult to relate the events of God’s War to “things going on right now”. I can only imagine Hurley’s own vexation at such woeful misapprehension of the novel’s purpose. In its brilliantly sardonic, sideways depictions of so many current aspects of contemporary real-world conflict, racial oppression and gender politics, God’s War could scarcely be more relevant if it tried. The economic, social and cultural commentary presented in this novel – solidly grounded and keenly observed – is both starkly objective and wrenchingly emotive, a difficult trick to pull off if ever there was one. Yet as in all the best works of political literature, the exposition of an idea is never allowed to overmaster the story nor browbeat the reader. In God’s War, we experience the turbulent history of a world through the thoughts, actions and feelings of individual and roundly believable characters. We have a sense of life going on, not to serve the novel’s ideology but in spite of it. There are families to feed, lovers to meet, boxing matches to bet on. People in this novel – as in life – are always more than the sum of the injustices inflicted upon them.

The theological background of God’s War is clearly based around an extrapolation of the structures of faith and politics in contemporary Islam, yet to state that the novel is “about” Islam alone on any kind of strictly like-for-like basis would be to oversimplify and misunderstand it. If God’s War is about war, it is equally concerned with the nature and mystery of faith – in a feasible future, in the search for meaning, in one’s fellow human beings, in a personal relationship to an unknowable universe. Those individuals gifted with the ability to service the ‘bugtech’ that Umamya runs on are known as magicians – not because they can perform actual magic, but because they have assumed a level of mastery over their natural powers of intuition. Questions of faith are embodied most directly in the character of Rhys, a deserter-magician whose devout nature both guides his actions and underpins his philosophical understanding of his world. Hurley would initially have us believe that Nyx and Rhys stand as spiritual opposites – but by the end of the novel we see that they are anything but. Hurley’s undogmatic examination of the common roots of faith and the universal human impulse towards expressions of spirituality is handled with subtlety and grace, providing the novel with a depth of field that works an effective counterpoint to the powerfully driven adventure story.

As story I found the novel hard to put down, but when I proceed to reading the sequels to God’s War – which I certainly will – it will be most of all because of the language, because of Hurley’s skill not just in imagining the finer details of her world but in selecting the words and rhythms of speech most suited to transmitting her vision into the minds and hearts of her readers. Umamya is not a comfortable environment, far from it, but it is a vivid one, a fiercely penetrating reality, what we might almost call a true fiction that, through the power of its author’s prose, one yearns to revisit.

Nina Allan’s story “The Art of Space Travel” appears in Homes of the Stars (Arc 2.5), out later this year. Visit our FB page, follow us on Twitter and subscribe to our newsletter for the latest news.

Also on the blog: Liz Sourbut on Nina Allen’s Stardust.

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