Kameron Hurley, God’s War (Del Rey, 2014)
It’s the layering of the romantic squalor of biopunk (or theopunk?) in Kameron’s Hurley’s God’s War which makes it so much fun. The world Umayma has been terraformed and settled for 3,000 years by several races, most of whom share a common “religion of the book” but two of which, Nasheen and Cheja, have been at almost constant war for centuries. Occasionally, refugees from other theological conflicts, or even just lost and inquisitive aliens (all, it seems, of common human stock) drop by. Technology, in this far future, is indistinguishable from magic – indeed, scientists are called “magicians” and their powers over bioengineering are based upon hazily-if-at-all-explained control over indigenous insect life. Much of their efforts are devoted to repair of the horrendous injuries suffered by combatants in the war. (There is an entire sub-economy built around trading body-parts.) One such repaired soldier is Nyx, a former “bel dame” (member of a sisterhood devoted to tracking down deserters or infiltrators) who has made one too many deals verging on the dodgy and is now a bounty-hunter leading the obligatory team of outcasts.
Nyx’s team includes Khos, a Mhorian “shifter” (read: werewolf) and Rhys, a Chenjaan refugee whose talents as a magician are sufficient to gain him refugee status but not enough for him to get an independent job. Naturally, a mission is involved – a search for an alien who just might have secret tech which will put an end to the war for anyone who possesses it. Commissioned by the Queen, Nyx nevertheless has her bel dame sisters, who are not averse to some rather nasty torture, to contend with.
God’s War is a slick and inventive adventure novel which seems at time to escape into fantasyland when we get curious about the way the science and technology actually works. Similarly, the role of religion in this far future loses focus when we look at it. The dominant religion (or religions, or sects) is clearly based upon Islam – to the extent that items of clothing from the Islamic world, and many terms associated with it, are used. But the Nasheenians, in particular, have reversed the gender power-relations within Islam as we know it. Little, apart from the term “people of the book”, and a coy reference to “the Prophet”, is spelled out, and it is unclear whether Hurley knows, or is willing or able to tell, just how this religion evolves from present-day Islam, or whether (as did Frank Herbert in Dune) she is using convenient building-blocks from Islam to build her own future. But it’s a well-done future, refreshingly different from many of the stereotypes we’re used to in far-future sf, and most readers in search of a dirty-gritty romp simply won’t care.
It’s good at tensions and undercurrents. Nyx as befits her role as tough foul-mouthed hero, knocks back whisky and is referred to as an atheist by her comrades. Rhys, with whom she shares a sexual chemistry and something approaching love, is devout but occasionally wracked by conscience: and this is another interesting little difference. It’s rare that religious devotion unmixed with hypocrisy is given us in this kind of fiction, and often, when Rhys and occasional other minor characters appear, we get the sense that as well as the slam-bang action scenes, the baroque but bizarre technologies and the rather unconvincing but desolate background of endless war that all go to make this one of the better bits of romantic escapism I’ve had for a while, this is a universe that could actually be lived-in by people who feel. I haven’t read the subsequent novels in the trilogy, but there’s enough here, despite my occasional hesitations as hinted above, to make me want to spend a bit more time knowing about this world.