God's War

Reviewer: Kevin Riggle

Author: Kameron Hurley

Published: 2011

Reviewed: 2011-06-12

Publisher: Night Shade Books

"God's War" is another book I first encountered when John Scalzi ran a
Big Idea piece by its author on his blog WHATEVER[0]. (If you don't
follow the Big Idea pieces[1], you're missing out on one of the better
tools that isn't "friends' recommendations" for discovering good new
SF I've found. Less so lately, for some reason----an overabundance of
urban fantasy?---but for a while I was adding every other book to my
Amazon wishlist and buying every third. The comments to the entries
are filled with people complaining in jest about the pain induced by
the post series in their wallets.)

Anyhow, I read the post, thought "that sounds kind of cool," and
promptly got distracted by being depressed about work and job-hunting.
A couple months later, I was in MITSFS, bored and with nothing to do,
and found it on the new book shelf and and got sucked into it. It's a
very gritty SFnal world---none of the main characters are people who
I'd want to meet in a dark alley. Everything, including 'bakkies'
(real-life South African slang for pickup trucks, as Wikipedia informs
me), is powered by bioengineered insects, which are controllable by
certain people called magicians, like the character Rhys, through some
(perhaps pheromonal?) process. Several characters have strange
genetics which allows them to shift into animal form---Khos, another
member of the team, has a dog form. And our main character, Nyx, is
an ex-bel dame, a former member of an elite squad of assassins who
hunt down deserters and other threats to the country, and who are a
political force in their own right. The story has as its backdrop an
interminable war between the two major powers of the planet, Nasheen
and Chenja, in which Nyx fought for Nasheen and from which Rhys is a
Chenjan draft-dodger. Now Nyx's team is assigned to bring in an
off-worlder and potential gene pirate who's playing both sides, but
who also might have the information to tip the balance of power once
and for all. But the bel dames and a rival bounty hunter are also on
the pirate's trail, and they have their own purposes.

It's a pretty brutal story, as befits its resource-poor desert setting
(what TV Tropes would call a Crapsack World[2]) and its bounty-hunter
subject matter---lots of heads, fingers, ears being chopped off. The
tech is advanced enough that most injuries up to death and having your
head cut off can be repaired, for a price. The characters are all
seriously flawed, concerned mostly with their own tenuous survival,
but also capable of nobility. There's a lot of fictional politics and
religion in the story, as you might guess from the title -- there are
several countries' futures at stake in the book, and they all have
different dominant religions (all apparently based on Islam) and
social and cultural mores which have affected the characters' lives
for better or worse. Nasheen, where much of the story takes place,
sends its men and many of its women off to war, so many so that women
run the country; Chenja is much more what we might imagine of a
conservative Mustlim country; Ras Tieg is home to a large number of
shifters which it is busily oppressing. The tensions between the
countries are reflected in the tensions between the characters, and
those relationships provided a lot of the interest of the book to me.
For all that, the book never felt preachy to me---all of these
societies were broken, in one way or another. (I don't know the
author's background, but nothing I read in the book suggested that a
Christian or atheist society written by her would be any less flawed;
I would have thrown it across the room if it had. It is not a book to
rag on Muslims.)

I wasn't bowled over by the bug-tech, though I found it competently
executed, and there were a couple world-building details that didn't
ring quite true to me. (The most notable is a couple references to
using "sand-cats"---which I have no reason to believe are not large,
carnivorous felids---being used as beasts of burden. While I
convinced myself after a while that using meat-eaters as beasts of
burden isn't a completely impossible idea, cf. wolves/dogs (though
they're both omnivores and pack animals, not solitary obligate
carnivores), I don't think they'd be my first choice of beast of
burden in a desert environment, even if I had the story's ridiculously
advanced bioengineering technology. I considered letting it throw me
out of the story for a while and then decided that I was being

So I liked the book. I'm not sure I'll pick up the second volume of a
planned trilogy (due out in October), mostly due to a current lack of
interest in the kind of brutality in evidence, but that's mostly me
hunting other pleasures in my fiction and not the book's fault, and
thankfully the first book stands well on its own. I've already leant
my copy to a friend, and would definitely recommend it to people who
enjoy the works of authors like Joe Abercrombie and Richard K. Morgan.

[0] http://whatever.scalzi.com/2011/01/18/the-big-idea-kameron-hurley/
[1] http://whatever.scalzi.com/category/big-idea/
[2] http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CrapsackWorld