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God's War: Bel Dame Apocrypha Volume 1 Paperback – February 1, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
Readers will be fascinated by the setting of this slow-starting but compelling far-future debut. On a planet settled by Muslims and ravaged by constant war and pollution, Nyx, a former government-sponsored assassin or "bel dame," gets by as a bounty hunter. Her assistant is the foreign magician Rhys, who can control the ubiquitous insects that drive the planet's technology. When the government asks them to hunt down an off-worlder who possesses technology that could end the war, they find themselves facing off against foreign agents and their fellow bel dames. Hurley's world-building is phenomenal, with casual references to insectile technology and the world's history that provide atmosphere without info dumps. Far too many pages are spent introducing the characters, but the story is highly engaging once it starts, and Hurley smoothly handles tricky themes such as race, class, religion, and gender without sacrificing action. (Feb.)
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"God's War is one of the most thought-provoking debuts I've read so far this year." - Locus Magazine
"Are you frustrated with Mary Sue heroines? Well, here comes God's War to rock your face off... If you like rough, battle-scarred women who know how to regulate, you're going to love Nyx... She makes Han Solo look like a boy scout." - i09
"God's War is a clever reinterpretation of the war novel. Hurley takes on issues of gender roles, violence, and religion and does it all with a deft hand." - Staffer's Musings
"God's War was part slow burn, part explosive action... in the end the novel was utterly compelling.- Tor.com
"God's War is a violent tale set against the backdrop of a centuries-old holy war. But beyond all the blood and violence, it's a beautifully crafted work of art that keeps astonishing you when you least expect it." - Pat's Fantasy Hotlist
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So begins God’s War, a tale of intrigue, war, and brutality set in the far-future world of Umayma where state-sanctioned bounty hunters keep the peace and young men die in a war, the cause of which no one knows. Three thousand years before the story begins, the planet was terraformed, incompletely, much of it remaining inhospitable desert. The human civilization that took root bases its technology on using bugs in almost every conceivable way. Motorized vehicles run on bugs. There are weaponized bugs of various kinds, and bugs figure into the diet of humans and other animals, long-distance communications, and so on.
The two warring nations, Chenja and Nasheen, are opposed on religious lines (both practice a form of Islam, with differing interpretations), and there are also racial differences between the two–Chenjans are darker skinned than their Nasheenian enemies, patriarchical, and religiously conservative. Young men in both societies go to the war front as soon as they are old enough and either return in body bags or once they’re old enough to retire from military service. As a result of the centuries-old war, the frontier between the two countries is contaminated wasteland.
The protagonists in God’s War in one way or another do not fit into the world as it is. In one way or another they are misfits, dissidents, and refugees. They are led by Nyxnissa (Nyx for short), a bounty hunter expelled from the bel dames for taking illegal side work. This organization of state assassins in Nasheen may or may not be named for the Keats poem (there is no mention one way or another in the book) but they are certainly all women without mercy, tasked with hunting down men who desert from the front and policing their own members. Typically, they cut off the heads of their marks.
Nyx settles into bounty hunting after her expulsion, but even so her former “sisters” continue to hound her. She tries to forget her past with strong drink and sex, but her scars run deep. Nyx is a woman of action–we only get glimpses of her past and sarcastic, sometimes hilarious commentary on the ragtag mercenaries who fill out her team. Briefly, there is Khos the Mhorian shifter who can assume the shape of a dog at will; Anneke, a woman younger than Nyx who is obsessed with guns; Taite, the team’s com officer who fled his homeland, in part because of his homosexuality; and Rhys, the Chenjan deserter who is a magician in Umayman terms–he can command bugs to do his will, though he is not all that good at it. A lot of the tension in the novel comes from the interplay between hard-living Nyx and the pious, soft-mannered Rhys.
Most of the plot revolves around an dicey political situation involving an offworlder interested in bug technology and whose own technology could end the war. There’s also a lot of boxing and evading the bel dames and a rival team of mercenaries led by Nyx’s old mentor Raine. The heart of the book, and where it will stand or fall with any individual reader, is with the characters. The world is a nasty and brutal one, and Hurley lays it on deep and wide. But while Nyx is working to find the missing alien scientist, and getting hurt–a lot–we learn her story and the stories of her team members, what they left behind in their homelands, why they left, how they got mixed up in a hot mess like this one. There are hints at the overarching plot, and Umayma’s history, along the way, but the reader stays just as much in the dark as Nyx and her team. They are small but important pieces in a bigger political game involving magicians, aliens, imams, and queens. In the end, she wants to stay alive, most days, finish the job, and get paid.
I should mention that the version I read–the US Kindle e-book edition–was fraught with editing errors that I put at the publisher’s feet. A fair amount of misspelling and the occasional missing word or misformatting did detract from the reading experience somewhat.
I recommend God’s War if you enjoy thrillers focused on a team of protagonists trying to solve a mystery before it gets them all killed. The worldbuilding is a bit hard to swallow, so don’t–just go with it, and let the pieces slowly come into place, though some never do. Some of the vocabulary is likely foreign to most English speakers, but the meaning is apparent from context (e.g., a bakkie is an automobile, a burnous is a hooded cloak). I don’t recommend this book if you’re squeamish about violence–or bugs. It took me a few weeks to read, in small pieces, because frankly it is just that dark. Truly, this is a thoughtful piece of writing about religion, war, and politics, written in a post-colonial vein, where the scraps of reality are more important than trying to reconstruct the whole cloth. I recommend reading God’s War on its own terms then considering the implications of what Hurley is telling us about our time, without just coming out and saying it.
Nyx is a bel dame (from la bel dame sans merci, I would imagine), a government-sanctioned bounty-hunter. However, she runs into some unexpected difficulties, and ends up taking refuge with a magician who she has known for years. However, things continue to go downhill for her, until she ends up in prison. When she gets out, she picks herself up and builds a bounty team.
"Life was what you did with what was done to you.
"You didn't make me," Nyx gasped. "I made myself."
She gets an intriguing offer that could make all the difference, and life gets much more complicated.
I didn't like Nyx as a person, any more than I like James Bond or Jason Bourne. They're all sociopaths and stone cold killers, but they are also highly driven and motivated people. I did like the secondary character, Rhys, who is altogether softer and more sympathetic.
The world itself is another character, and the author's history degree shows itself in the thought about how different sects might evolve. For instance, some of the entities are run entirely by women because all the men, all of them, have gone to die at the front. "He thought of all the men at the front. He thought of the genocide of a gender." They have different standards of modesty, different types of food, different interpretations of the holy book, just like our world. The magic of the world is based on manipulating bio-engineered bugs, and shapeshifting. The weapons of the generations-long war are scented like flowers. I liked the different landscapes, the feeling of space, the smells of marigold and curry.
I liked that there is a sect called the Druce (Druz?), and that in a world where most children need three years of innoculations to survive, sex for reproduction is a little revolting. Instead, at least in the culture Nyx is from, lesbian relationships are standard, and yet gay relationships are forbidden. It's interesting, and you have to think about why it is that way. "Warm, crinkle-eyed, matronly women were some of the most sought-after bed partners in Nasheen."
There are some relationships, and a very confusing unresolved Thing, but romance is not what is driving most of these people. Most of them are running from, not to.
Read if: You are looking for a vibrant, interesting world that is a neat combination of cyberpunk and a religious colony a few millenia after landing by Muslim colonists.
Skip if: You are averse to bloodshed. Seriously. It's like a Tarantino movie about a female assassin. In a good way.
Most recent customer reviews
Enjoyed it. Enough loose ends to expect a sequel. All in worth it.