God’s War, by Kameron Hurley

[Since this is a recent book by a living, and not incredibly massive, author, I’m avoiding doing a proper review, and just doing a quick summary of my thoughts – I don’t feel comfortable going into too much detail about books where the author might find the review. Actually, I think I’ve said more in this one than I feel particularly comfortable with. I also have held the review back a while as I’m aware that I’m probably going against popular opinion here, in tone if not necessarily in conclusion.]

 

What is this book?

The first part of a trilogy of far-future science fantasy novels, showing the adventures of a number of assassins and bounty hunters in a country enmeshed in a war so terrible that almost the entire male population has been conscripted. Closest in style and substance to a Shadowrun novel – a gang of hardened, ultra-cynical killers (with varying degrees of hidden goodness) try to complete their mission while getting caught up in the machinations of shadowy and deadly rival groups, in a world where guns and magic coexist. Like some Shadowrun novels, the debt to the noir tradition is clear, but the suaveness and hypocrisy of noir have been replaced with barefaced ‘gritty’ violence and squalor.

The main difference from Shadowrun is the setting. God’s War is set on (what appears to be, although the backstory is never filled in conclusively) an alien planet settled by humans in the far future. Most of the inhabitants appear to be Muslims, or at least follow some religion similar to or evolved from Islam. The story chiefly concerns the desert war between the secular, female-dominated monarchy of Nasheen (whose inhabitants are chiefly ‘cockroach brown’) and the neighbouring conservative theocracy of Chenja (who inhabitants are darker skinned), although the nations of Tirhan (neutral arms-dealers), Ras Tieg (suggested to be Christian) and Mhoria (more European in appearance, with a rigid gender segregation) are also mentioned. The plot also involves a rare visit to Nasheen by humans from another planet. The world features at least two kinds of magic – the magic of the ‘magicians’, which revolves around the psychic control of invertebrates (‘bugs’, often with seemingly supernatural abilities of their own), and of the ‘shifters’, who can change into the form of an animal.

Given current and recent events, the setting of a brutal desert war (complete with chemical and biological weapons), ornamented with a backdrop of mosques and calls to prayer and women wearing veils, inevitably is redolent of modern conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and so on; in particular, it would fit well alongside films like The Hurt Locker, though without that film’s straightforwardness. Whether you consider it from the perspective of a war story or from the perspective of an espionage/detective story, however, everything here is turned up to eleven.

 

What is this book good for?

It’s high-octane, at times very gory, action, with violent episodes punctuated by periods of recovery and fear. It’s an exciting read. Given this, it also does a surprisingly good job of fleshing out multiple key characters, making individuals who in a lesser book might seem blank ciphers or collections of tropes instead seem real and vivid. It does all this in the context of an intriguing and highly distinctive setting, which is intentionally kept unclear and puzzling for as long as possible (as are key things we might like to know about the backstory of the characters). On a more superficial level, there’s a far higher concentration of dark-skinned and female characters than in most genre fiction, which may appeal to those who are particularly conscious of this deficiency in the genre.

 

What problems does this book have?

The biggest problem may be structural. The plot is so full of twists and turns and surprises that by the end it felt as though it lacked integrity as a narrative – things were swerved off the rails so often I lost the sense of there being rails, a clear destination, and consequently I felt the story lacked a driving pace. At times it seemed more like a series of episodes (emotionally if not in terms of plot) – I found myself gripped and thrilled and compelled to complete each chapter, but found it far too easy to not go on to the next chapter, due in large part to this episodic feel. Some of these episodes also became repetitive. Altogether, this meant that the pay-off was underwhelming, with the ending neither being fully fulfilling as a standalone nor enticing as a lead-in for the sequels. The underlying plot is kept so vague and mysterious throughout and wrapped up so quickly that I never particularly cared about it. This was all exacerbated by a common problem with stories that try to sustain a sense of mystery – because so much uncertainty had been maintained about who exactly the bad guys were and why, the ending had to be packed with exposition detailing exactly who everyone was and who was working with whom and why each person had done what they had done exactly. The author actually handled this about as well as could be expected, but it did still undermine the excitement, and I found the climax (indeed, the anticlimax) to be one of the least thrilling parts of the book. Oh, and there’s a very obvious “twist” in the ending that not only is predictable from ten pages in but also doesn’t seem to add very much. And the ending didn’t really feel any different from any of the other encounters in the book, except that the characters finally (at least temporarily) ran out of people to kill (again, a problem with having so much action in a book is that what might otherwise be a notable climactic action scene becomes just another in a long line, and loses its special function as a climax).

A further problem I found – though here perhaps others may disagree – is that the main character really isn’t very likeable. As always in this type of novel, none of the characters are saints, but the protagonist, Nyx, is given almost no redeeming features. And the author seems to be aware of this, since almost everyone she meets goes on about how horrible she is, even her ‘friends’ don’t really seem too enamoured of her much of the time, and she herself wallows in self-pity and self-flagellation. This is, I suppose, interesting – though it would be more so if the character weren’t such a stock figure to begin with – but it does make it a little difficult to emotionally engage. I quickly found I didn’t really care what happened to Nyx as a person, beyond the success or failure of her mission and the wellbeing or otherwise of those she was protecting or threatening. This became more obvious to me later in the novel when we are given more chapters from other perspectives, at which point I realised that I was sighing every time we went back to Nyx. And do bear in mind that this criticism is coming from a boy who usually swoons over cynical kickass tomboys. So I gave her the benefit of the doubt, waiting for her to become likeable, or at the very least enjoyable. Didn’t really happen – in fact, as the angst quotiant increased as we went through the novel, she just became less and less fun to read. When you’re reading a book not caring much about the plot and trying to see over the protagonist’s shoulder to see whether anything interesting is happening to the peripheral characters, something has gone wrong.

Finally, there’s the problem inherent whenever you turn things up to eleven: it doesn’t really make it any louder. You learn very, very quickly in this book that everybody in it is quite likely going to be brutalised and mutilated before it’s over. But there’s a limit to how many severed heads and pools of blood and exploding brains you can really get worked up about. For a start, the existence of magic means that most of this violence doesn’t have any long-term effect, with most injuries, even seemingly fatal ones, being reversible; and even when somebody does die permanently, it comes as no great surprise. This level of violence just encourages the reader to avoid emotionally commiting to any character – as does the hypercynical narrative voice, which tosses off maiming and bereavement in wry and uncaring tones, just mentioning these things in passing. Well, if the characters don’t seem to care and the narrator doesn’t seem to care, why exactly should I care either? The suffering felt distant, unreal, cartoonish. It felt sensationalised, glamourised, even faintly distasteful.

Post-finally, I also found myself wishing for more depth. The setting, as I’ve said, is intriguing, but once you work out how things work most of its features feel somewhat superficial, there appear to be some logical gaps, and some of the more interesting elements are badly underexplored. I could have done with people taking a moment away from the killing to muse a little about sociology, demography and economics. Then again, this is only the first book of the trilogy, so maybe we’ll see the consequences of things fleshed out a little more later on.

In short?

“Intriguing” is probably a good word. The world is highly distinctive, if not necessarily as original as it first appears; the plot and characters and style are very familiar, but for the most part handled well. Its greatest virtue is its action, and its vices are those you’d expect from an action story – a lack of emotional engagement and some wobbly sets at the edges of the screen. The characters and setting were interesting enough that I’ll certainly go on and read the sequels – though I fear that unless things change, after two more novels of this I’m going to be even more tired of the ultra-‘gritty’ noirish stylings, which frankly I found too affected for my tastes [at high points it works, thanks to its audacity, but at low points I found myself thinking of Only Forward, with the difference that here the autoparody seems not to be intentional]. Anyway, I don’t want my problems with that aspect of the book to overshadow all the good points: this is a confident, swaggering, compelling, mostly enjoyable read that also offers a little more originality than you’ll find in many genre novels.

Verdict?

Adrenaline: 4/5. Might have been 5/5, but I found it too easy to disengage in the lulls in action, largely because I wasn’t deeply emotionally engaged.

Emotion: 2/5. Disappointing. Things happen here that I expected would really shake me up, but in the end I was so desensitised by it all that even the death of my favourite character barely got a blink out of me. That said, it throws enough at you that some of it has to stick, and the fact that I was quietly dreading their inevitable demise at all does show that I was feeling something.

Thought: 4/5. In some ways frustrating, because there was a lot of unexplored potential here in the setting for some really thought-provoking material, which wasn’t delivered. On the other hand, seeing it as fundamentally an action romp and expecting no more than that, the distinctive setting and complex characters lifted what could otherwise have been fairly brainless fair, and there were also a few interesting remarks made along the way. The complexities of the plot also deserve mention, even if they ultimately provoked a lot of unsatisfying explanation at the end.

Beauty: 2/5. The prose isn’t bad, not at all, but it also doesn’t stand out as gorgeous. What the prose is describing is mostly very ugly. There are a few points where the ugliness becomes beautiful in its own way, but for the most part… blood, bugs, squalor, violence, cheap brothels, the smell of bodily functions, lots of decapitation…

Craft: 3/5. A mixed affair. I’d see it optimistically: the author clearly has imagination and the courage to display it, and the skill to create effective characters without having much to work with or much time to work in. So I think she’s talented. But she is also a little rough – I’d like to see her improve her structuring, make a few things less obvious, fill in a few shady areas, and tone down her voice into something a little more original and human.

Endearingness: 3/5. I feel like I’m being generous here. I, honestly, didn’t really like it, on an emotional level. On the other hand, I find that I really want to have liked it. I think I like the idea of it more than I liked the realisation. But shouldn’t that count for something? Making me like the idea, even when much of the realisation didn’t appeal to me?

Originality: 3/5. This is a tough one to score. On the one hand, it’s stunningly original – you won’t find many settings that look like this! On the other hand, much of that originality is superficial – you will find stories and characters very similar to this, and that distinctive setting isn’t actually different enough in its internal organs, once you get past the skin, to overcome, or prohibit, that familiarity. What’s more, this narrative voice, and the protagonist that supports it, has itself become a cliché.

Overall: 5/7. Good. I may be being generous – perhaps it should only be ‘not bad’. But I’ll stick with ‘good’ for now – yes, I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt, but I think books like this (confident books, books that look different) probably deserve that benefit of the doubt. I didn’t love this book the way many other people seem to have loved it, but I don’t for a moment regret reading it, and I can see myself recommending it to people. I’m also definitely going to read the next book in the series… but maybe not just yet.

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Reading the Silmarillion: Aule and the Dwarves

Aulë, Melkor, and Tolkien – the dangers of industry, and the author’s art

Probably the single most thematically important section of the early chapters details Aulë’s creation of the dwarves. Given how little role the dwarves have to play in the stories that will follow – how little is even said about them explicitly in the mythology – that may seem a strange claim. But of course the dwarves are not the point of this story – they’re just bystanders at their own creation (and near-destruction). The pivotal figure is instead the Vala, Aulë, the Smith. Aulë doesn’t come across all that well in the mythology as a whole, as I said in my last post: at least two of his followers turn very seriously to evil, he himself is said to be the most like Melkor in spirit and interests, and here we see him committing what looks almost like a Cardinal Sin for Middle-Earth. ‘I’m just going off for a nap,’ says God (not really, but you get my drift), ‘you just stay there and don’t touch anything. I’ve decided what intelligent life is going to look like, and don’t you start interfering with that like Melkor tried to do!’. So then Aulë waits around for a bit, but gets bored: ‘oh, I’ll just create a little intelligent life, and overstate my own importance in the same way Melkor did just for a moment, what’s the worst that can happen?’ – ‘Aulë, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!?’

Tolkien gets bashed a lot for his supposed anti-industry stance, and his repeated ‘oh it’s all Aulë’s fault’ plot points are a big piece of supporting evidence for that. I don’t want to get into that argument itself here, but I think that this incident does raise two important issues.

The first is simple: if Aulë’s so flawed, why isn’t he Melkor? We’re told they’re alike, but why are they on different sides if they’re so alike? What is it that keeps Aulë on the side of good? And it turns out that this is more important than just a character point – this goes to the heart of Tolkien’s political and moral views.

First, it’s worth making clear the similarities. Aulë, like Melkor, wants to create. Aulë, like Melkor, wants to overstep his allotted role. Aulë, like Melkor, chooses to work in secret. Secrecy and honesty seem to play an important role for Tolkien: again and again he contrasts the images of the good Ainur, cavorting with each other in the bright light, and the evil Melkor, solitary, fearful, hidden in the shadows of the earth, in the deep dark unknown places – just as, before, the good Ainur were joined together in a choir, while Melkor went alone into the outer void. Aloneness is not necessarily bad in Tolkien’s world – we are told that Ulmo stays apart from the congregations of the other Valar, and Ulmo hardly seems evil – and yet, is Ulmo wise and good because he keeps to himself, or is it that Ulmo can keep to himself and not turn evil because he is wise and good, the most deeply instructed of all the Valar? And Ulmo may be alone, but he is not secretive – he communes regularly with Manwë. In any case, secrecy may not be evil per se, but it certainly seems both suspicious and dangerous.

So Aulë goes out into Middle-Earth and creates the dwarves. He desires learners, so that he may be a great teacher; he is ‘unwilling’ to abide by Eru’s intentions. In a way, Aulë has lost faith in Eru: he sees the wonders of Middle-Earth, and regrets that there is no-one to enjoy them. He doubts the wisdom of Eru’s decisions. In this, he is like those whom Melkor swayed to his side in the great music, by disheartening them.

But the difference comes when Ilúvatar sees what has been done and chastises Aulë. We see it within one sentence: “Ilúvatar spoke to him; and Aulë heard his voice and was silent.” That’s not just a conversational nicety that Tolkien’s reporting, it’s a fundamental theological point. Remember the events of the Ainulindalë – when Melkor’s theme intruded into the music, Ilúvatar merely smiles and introduces a new theme, but Melkor responds to the correction by contending against Ilúvatar further. Melkor tries to drown out Ilúvatar with a great clamour of trumpets; Aulë hears his father’s voice and is silent. It is all said in that; but Tolkien spells it out more clearly by having Aulë explicitly yield to the correction and repent. Yet it is not repentence that Ilúvatar is seeking: Ilúvatar does not have mercy on Aulë and the dwarves because Aulë regrets what he has done – indeed, Ilúvatar does not permit Aulë to undo his ‘error’. There is no forgiveness in any sense that involves an undoing of what is done. Here we have reached one of those peculiar places of agreement, where a certain strain of christianity shares its habitation with that great modern antichrist, Nietzsche: both Nietzsche in his love of life, his adulation of strength, his contempt for any sort of weakness or uncertainty, and the christian in his submission to God, his faith in God’s goodness, his willingness to put his life in God’s hands, both share this emphasis on affirmation – and affirmation begets responsibility. The responsible man is not the man who is willing to undo what he has done, but the man who is willing to live with what he has done, to leave it done. Aulë is hubristic in creating the dwarves – but he is also hubristic in seeking to exterminate them, for regret itself is a form of hubris. No, Ilúvatar does not have mercy on Aulë because he wants to destroy the dwarves – he has mercy on him ‘because of his humility’. Because Aulë has responded to correction – because he has put his work in God’s hands, not sought to keep control of it for himself. That is why Aulë is not Melkor: because when Melkor creates in the great song, and is corrected, and sees his theme taken up and taken over by Ilúvatar, he does not let go of that music, take pride in having added something new to the song, and abide by the correction – Melkor rages to keep his music his own. Aulë submits his work to the will of his Father. This has been a common theme in Catholic teaching for a long time: that the greatest sin is not in the error itself, but in holding to error once one has been shown that it is an error.

But why does Tolkien include all this at all? Why does it matter to him? Although he is clearly an author with firm moral views, I do not for a moment suppose that The Silmarillion should, as a whole, be treated as a moral discourse. So why does he seem to care about this relatively obscure issue, about the morality of rebellious creation?

Because this is the sin that he himself was guilty of. This is the second interesting issue raised by this episode. Melkor, Aulë, and Tolkien, were all authors: they all created what had not (it seemed) been part of God’s plan. Rather than being contented by the world as it was, they sought to to create something new. And Tolkien, we must remember, was a worldbuilder first and a novelist second: these stories are excuses, justifications, for the world he had created in his head. Even today, many worldbuilders of a religious persuasion experience moral qualms about their work – and Tolkien was working in an age where the entire concept of ‘fantasy’ as we know it was far less established. Earlier writers could generally only get away with fantasy by casting it as the strange dream of the protagonist, or a legend preserved by some old manuscript of forgotten more magical times… Tolkien created a world that set out to be as solid as our own (that, technically, was our own, but with this identity barely mentioned). It is hard not to imagine that in Tolkien’s childhood – an orphan raised by a priest – between hubris and indolence the practice of inventing imaginary worlds was not something that was unambiguously encouraged in him. Famously, he later referred to the creation of languages in particular as “The Secret Vice” – humorously in part, no doubt, since he hardly seems to have been convulsed by guilt over this ‘vice’, but the idea that it might be considered a vice at all indicates an underlying moral doubt. So Aulë’s speech to Ilúvatar – the speech that exonerates Aulë of guilt, that distinguishes Aulë from Melkor, that asserts the legitimacy (and perhaps the foolishness, but at any rate the legitimacy) of this sort of creation, is perhaps the place in the book where Tolkien’s voice is heard most directly and most intimately in the words of his character, which lay out a moral and theological theory that was of import to no-one more than to himself:

“I did not desire such lordship. I desired things other than I am, to love and to teach them, so that they too might perceive the beauty of Eä, which thou hast caused to be. For it seemed to me that there is great room in Arda for many things that might rejoice in it, yet it is for the most part empty still, and dumb. And in my impatience I have fallen into folly. Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of the father. But what shall I do now, so that thou be not angry with me for ever? As a child to his father, I offer to thee these things, the work of the hands which thou hast made. Do with them what thou wilt.”

Of course Ilúvatar has to accept the offering – if he hadn’t done, Tolkien would no doubt have burnt the manuscript.

Ugh.

No, that’s not my reaction to the Tory party’s race to crucify the most poor people before luncheon*. I’ve been ill. Nothing serious, but considerably unenjoyable nonetheless. I can now at least walk around and even use my eyes for things without spikes of nausea shivering/sweating and head pain; now I just have the hacking cough, the feeling that my nose and eyes are on fire and blocks of lead at the same time, and the continual need for industrial numbers of tissues. So considerable improvement!

Might be nice if I could go outside without freezing to the bone, though.

Well, anyway, that’s my quota of trivial self-pity done for the day.

When I’m feeling a bit better, by the way, I intend to read the second half of Kameron Hurley’s “God’s War”, review it, and maybe do another quick Pratchett, and post at least one essay on the Silmarillion. Not really been feeling like reading much at the moment, unfortunately.

 

*Sorry, I don’t mean to sound all partisan. And really, it’s not the policies I have a (big) problem with. I’m not right-wing, and I don’t like the Tory party, but sometimes they can sound like rational people who are able to have a rational debate. I generally think they’re wrong, but as long as they’re decent about it I can cope with that. But lately they’ve just been… disgusting. Vile. Nastier than they ever were as the nasty party. I’m just waiting for Josephs to leap back from the dead and reintroduce forced sterilisation for all comprehensive school students. And why do they (and by ‘they’ I’m now including their papers too) have to bring the “sordid sex lives” of poor people into it? The man is contemptible because he killed six of his own children and in general appears to have been a right tosser in many regards – not because he had a live-in mistress or because he and his wife has threesomes with other men. [They should be careful. Start going back to demonising those with ‘vile lifestyles’, and they’ll get their party mired in sleaze again, because it’s not like Tory MPs have the greatest reputation in the world for sexual puritanism.] You can make a dispassionate (though mostly wrong) argument about the necessity for further austerity or for getting people back to work with a great big whip… but you don’t have to come across like a manipulative, hypocritical, cold-hearted slimy little tosser in the process.

Sidebar: the total number of families in the UK with more than ten children and claiming some amount of unemployment benefit? Apparently around 130. Cost to the taxpayer under the new rules? That’s… wait a sec… forgive my maths if I’m wrong… but calculating very approximately… isn’t 130 families of ten people each all on benefits approximately the same cost to the State as… about forty Tory cabinet ministers? Just going by their salary, ignoring security budget, subsidised food and drink, free housing and all that? Now I’m not some woolly-minded radical who’s going to suggest just abolishing the cabinet or making them all eat locusts or anything, but I think it helps to get a sense of perspective by comparing the relative sizes of things sometimes.

…And while we’re at it, how damn incompetent are these people when it comes to PR, anyway? Now, I’m not a fan of PR. I prefer honesty from politicians (and from businesses) and I think people would respond well to more of it. But sometimes, you just look at how badly people in power handle really simple perception issues and wonder how they’re able to tie their shoelaces together, let alone run the country. Here’s a tip: if your government is going to announce a tax on bedrooms because some people have some spare rooms they’re not using right this moment and that’s unfair on other people… don’t have it announced by the guy who lives in a £200m mansion on his family estate where he’s known to have at least four bedrooms going completely unused. Or another: if you’re going to make your big thing about how some people defraud the state by claiming benefits they’re not entitled to, like pretending to be disabled or something, how about your able-bodied minister and his able-bodied protection detail don’t make the announcement while sitting around laughing on camera while parked in a clearly-marked disabled parking bay in an empty carpark! And don’t then let him say he wasn’t near the car himself when half the workers at the place have taken pictures of him in the car with their mobile phones! He’s not the scarlett pimpernel, he’s the chancellor of the exchequer, he should probably assume that now and then people might notice him!? [Either that or he hasn’t caught up to the invention of the camera, yet.]

How difficult are these things to keep clear? What sort of brainless, thoughtless buffoon, would… oh, I see. The sort who’re running the country. The sort of Tory MP, the sort of Tory MP, who can actually make grown, sane, non-hallucinating drug-free consenting adults look at Boris Bloody Johnson and see him as the more reliable and dependable alternative….

Seriously, these days, since the last few years of Blair really, politics in this country has been less a clash of ideas or a strategical conflict and more a waiting game to see which set of baggy-trousered drunken circus clowns can fall into the most blacmange the fastest. It’s like watching a tennis tournament where every game is a bye and it ends up being won by the one one-legged whiff-whaff-playing street begger who actually turned up…

 

 

….aaaaaanyway, that’s my quota of nation-pity for the day too. Sorry about the tangent, but it least it made ME feel a little better…