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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5 thoughts on “God’s War, by Kameron Hurley

  1. jonafras says:

    Was just leafing through your blog searching for another post and stumbled across this. Since I’ve read the whole Bel Dame trilogy back-to-back fairly recently it caught my eye –

    Reading through this I actually agree with much of what you say – but for some reason, I think God’s War spoke to me much more closely on an emotional level. Maybe Nyx is a bit cliched, but in the context of the world that Hurley’s built I never found her actions and re-actions anything less than believable. The overdone gore kind of makes you look at a new baseline: you start looking for what the protagonist DOES care about, and even if the clues are sparse you kind of feel that you’re starting to scratch at a core there. Maybe, even, something like humanity.

    It turns into a bit of a psychological ride as well: the oh-so-tough grimdark voyeur in you is pulled along by the actions scenes but you’re constantly looking out for how Nyx will react, whether THIS or THAT might finally give you some clue, finally, so you can see what makes her tick, what really turned her into the person that she is now. Could be I’m reading all this too naïvely – not as jaded with genre perhaps – but in the end, I think you do. And I found it very much worth it.

    The overarching plot, I agree, is a bit too obtuse; but given how the protagonist (and other POVs?) herself views the world around her, I think it kind of works. She just doesn’t care all that much. There’s that recurring refrain of “oh I should be working for the good of my country” but I never found it particularly convincing on Nyx’s part, and I don’t think that’s an accident.

    (Whether this works in a different world, with different characters / sets of protagonists, is kind of up for debate. I read the Mirror Empire soon after it came out [and before the Bel Dames] and my thoughts on its plot issues could probably be pretty much copied from your review above…! For some reason, it stuck out much less for me here.)

    Sorry for a bit of a ramble here – but I really enjoy reading your reviews – I often have quite complex thoughts on genre novels and I think it’s great to try discussing them on this level!

  2. Oh, don’t worry about rambling. Please, come and ramble on any of my posts. And by my standards, your comment was clear and concise…

    Maybe the problem is just that I’ve never seen myself as “oh-so-tough” – that sort of hypermasculinity has never appealed to me. It’s bad enough dealing with expectations of machismo in real life – a book that relies on me pretending to myself that I’m really macho just to get me through it just doesn’t appeal. How is reading any sort of book being ‘oh-so-tough’ anyway? As for voyeurism, it’s unexamined hyperviolence, presumably for shock value, which rapidly becomes puerile (in both senses of the word) in my experience. If ever that sort of thing appealed to me, years of watching film and TV have long since beaten it out of me. I’ve read and watched much more violent things than God’s War, so why am I meant to find the procession of limbs and gore magnetic? More to the point: I’ve been a teenage boy, I’ve spent time with other teenage boys, I’ve watched the things teenage boys watch… it takes more than writing down a teenage boy’s wet dream to get me excited by a book, because, well, been there done that.

    (I suppose another element to it is that I don’t get the impression that Hurley HAS been there or done that. Of course, it’s silly to demand that genre authors only write from life experiences. But I guess the enthusiasm for all this imagined carnage just makes it feel more… teenage boyish. It reminds me of Munthe’s comment in the introduction to The Story of San Michele, contrasting himself with professional authors: But why do these professionals not collect their material themselves? They seldom do. Novel writers who insist on taking their readers to the slums seldom go there themselves. Specialists on disease and Death can seldom be persuaded to come with you to the hospital where they have just finished off their heroine. Poets and philosophers, who in sonorous verse and prose hail Death as the Deliverer, often grow pale at the very mention of the name of their best friend… The bloodiest war novels were written I believe by peaceful citizens well out of the range of the long-distance German guns. I gather that Hurley’s had a difficult life, and there is an authentic note of pain and depression in the book in general, but when it comes to the hyperviolence it feels like shadows cast up on a screen, bodiless and contentless. You can make shadows do whatever you like.)

    I wasn’t constantly looking for how Nyx would react, because a) I didn’t care, and b) I always knew. She didn’t do or think a single surprising or unusual thing throughout the book. She just did exactly what the tropes of the style said she should do, and she did them in a very typical and unremarkable way.

    It’s not that she’s not human. She is. She’s very understandable, and not even entirely detestable. Maybe I’d have found it easier if she had been less ordinary, more inhuman. I’ve just finished re-reading Lord Foul’s Bane, and whatever the faults of the book (and it does have many) the antihero is at least so utterly unlikeable (yet believable and understandable) that there is an almost magnetic quality to his awfulness. But Nyx is just… empty.

    You can have an empty character and a good plot. You can have a dull plot and a great magnetic character. You can maybe have a prima facie boring character and a prima facie boring plot, if you put a lot of emphasis on exploring that psychology and showing hidden sides. But I didn’t really have anything to latch on to here. Like I say in the review: if the characters don’t care what’s going on, and the narrator doesn’t care what’s going on, why exactly am I meant to care what’s going on? For me, “oh-so-tough grimdark voyeurism”, a need to examine the next batch of entrails, just wasn’t enough. Some of the action scenes were exciting while they were happening, but they didn’t really pull me through, desparate to see the next one – and the further I got, the more I realised how inconsequential most of the action scenes really were to the actual plot.

    What’s actually noteworthy about this book? Well, I did honestly like (and was interested in) some of the peripheral characters. And the setting was interesting as well, although it did end up settling in an awkward middle ground, enough exploration to knock off the shine and show up the superficiality, but not enough exploration to overcome those suspicions and prove there was really something solid there. And on a technical level Hurley seemed quite competant (prose, scene construction, etc). So like I say above, I did get the impression she had talent, and that’s why I do want to read the sequels. But it’ll be coming up to two years now since I read the first volume and I haven’t even bought the sequels yet, and I think a lot of that is because I found it hard to really invest emotionally in what was going on. As I say, I liked the ideas more than the reality.

    See? YOUR comment wasn’t rambling at all!

  3. jonafras says:

    No worries! Yeah, I think it’s very interesting – I do really (and I’m not just saying this in order to be Englishpolite) agree with pretty much all your points – but for some reason, the Bel Dames just… gripped me considerably more.

    It’s not that I actively enjoy blood and entrails and such – though I’m also not massively appalled by them – just in this setting, the way the tropes / cliches / whatever were being used, it appealed to me to see where the hell it was all going. Maybe in this instance I only put a bit too much trust in the author’s ability to eventually have some deeper point to make. Maybe.

    I should be commenting here more!

  4. I’ll agree that the “where the hell is this going?” element was effective, and did help keep me engaged with the book. I guess the reason I’ve not gotten around to the sequel yet is that I’m not convinced it’s really going anywhere.

  5. jonafras says:

    Yeah. Well, based on that, I’d be even more reluctant to recommend the sequels to you… because for the most part it’s just more of the same.

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