[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.
“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.
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.