God’s War by Kameron Hurley wasn’t what I expected. I got the ebook for free to participate in io9’s book club (tomorrow), and had expected something sort of technothrillery with clumsy allegories about Islam and the terrorism and such. It was not that. It was fucking excellent.
The world in God’s War was colonized thousands of years ago. It’s lots of harsh desert and there are a few different nations, though you get the impression they’re all pretty small. Instead of running on fossil fuels and electricity most stuff is biological. Bugs are very important. Some people can control their pheromones to influence different bugs, so they use them as use them as communication devices, as weapons, drugs, self-repairing vehicle components, loads of stuff. This in itself is probably reason enough to read the book, just for the technology in use. There’s all sorts of cool biotech and people get new limbs and organs and just generally get rebuilt from scratch all the time if they can afford it/someone has an interest in them.
Another thing I love about the book is that Hurley doesn’t infodump anything on you. You piece shit together. This might be annoying if you like things to be settled in your mind quickly. I mean, here’s the very beginning of the book:
Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.
Drunk, but no longer bleeding, she pushed into a smoky cantina just after dark and ordered a pinch of morphine and a whiskey chaser. She bet all of her money on a boxer named Jaks, and lost it two rounds later when Jaks hit the floor like an antique harem girl.
Nyx lost every coin, a wad of opium, and the wine she’d gotten from the butchers as a bonus for her womb. But she did get Jaks into bed, and—loser or not—in the desert after dark, that was something.
The butchers, the price of that womb and the amount it was worth to be able to be blown through in an evening are all things that never get explicitly spelled out, but as the book progresses you build up your picture of what it all means. It’s really well done.
Also well done? The gender politics in the book. It’s not clear in that bit above, but Jaks is a woman. In one of the countries women go around bareheaded, give birth only in breeding compounds and generally treat men as fragile delicate stupid flowers (because every male of draft age gets called up to the war and if they come back they’re disfigured and damaged from all the terrible biological weapons being used). There’s a lot of sex (mostly with other women, though fucking men is to some women’s taste) and they’re seen as godless, though they follow the same book as the other nation. In the country they’re fighting the mullahs are in charge and women are all chadored up to become one of many wives to a man who isn’t fighting the war, and there are calls to prayer that people pay attention to. Still their young men who’re sent out to the front though. In the book we see both of these nations through the eyes of an insider and an outsider and they’re well-drawn.
But the story is also pretty badass. The main character, Nyx, is a bounty-hunter whose job is to bring back the heads of deserters. Stuff happens. Aliens (ie humans not from this world) get involved. There’s lots of death, religion and cussing. The two things I liked most about the story were that the first part takes place 6 years before the main plot. Hurley could have put it in as flashback or something and done the classic writing advice thing of “starting as late as possible” but she didn’t. I feel it works a lot better this way because as a reader you have a sense of history with the characters, that they didn’t just spring into being to undertake this one mission. The other thing I loved about the plot is the noirish aspect of nobody in the team being the best there is in their field, just the best Nyx could afford. They’re all mediocre, not supremely talented, weak schmucks. Badass, sure, but there is no Neo or Yoda or whoever here. Just a bunch of working stiffs who are outmatched, not just who say they feel outmatched and then proceed to be super-amazing.