Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Kameron Hurley - God's War

Nyx went on (p. 286).

Kameron Hurley's debut novel, God's War, got widespread coverage and acclaim across the blogosphere last year. Having now read the novel, I can say that the attention is certainly deserved.

The far future world of Umayma has been shaped by the never ending war between Nasheen and Chenja. In many ways, this conflict is reminiscent of our world's recent past, not only with the term and tactic of the "suicide soldier" (p. 167) and the lone man armed with some horrific contagion but with sentences like: Countries at war lived in a state of perpetual fear (p. 197). But, on Umayma, the war has gone farther than ours, has become overwhelming and omnipresent. It has led to strange technologies and powers like the magicians' ability to control bugs or the shifter's morphing. It has led to new societal patterns, new permutations of faiths, and new structuring of gender.

The war has set the course of Nyx's life as much as anyone else's, if not more. She has served her time at the front, has served Nasheen as a bel dame by keeping the populace in line, and has fallen more than once for Nasheen. But she refuses to surrender her autonomy to the war. Those around her know the events and the people that have made them. Some even go so far as to believe they have made Nyx, can take responsibility for her actions. She rejects that:  How many men had made her? […] They were just men. They were just people. […]It wasn't what was done to you. Life was what you did with what was done to you. (p. 240) In the face of the world and war around her, Nyx still demands responsibility for herself, insists upon her own course. She refuses the idea of submitting to anyone – not Fatima, not the magicians, not the queen, not God (p. 171).

Nyx's ferocious individualism is contrasted with Rhys, a religious man who fled Chenja to take refuge in Nasheen and has now found himself a member of Nyx's team. Rhys submits himself to God utterly and often. Yet, no matter how far he is from Nyx, the novel never removes the heart of weight of his position. Hurley's treatment of religion is one of the fairest I have encountered. Both Nyx and Rhys are complete characters with reasons for their faith or lack thereof, and, though each has potentially overwhelming problems as a result of their outlook, those problems do not easily rob their souls of validity. Furthermore, Nyx and Rhys' interaction is a mixture of conflict and care that feels real.

Nyx and her team are recruited to hunt down a woman from the stars and the game changing technology she possesses. This could have been the easy foundation for a simple, Thriller style plot. Instead, this quest doesn't come until nearly a hundred pages into the novel. The hunt will prove brutal for its undertakers. It will take them to and perhaps beyond their limits. But it is not the whole story of God's War, for Nyx's life began before it and will continue after it. The hunt is just one more part of it, something to further explore Nyx and the war rather than to constitute the whole of them.

The hunt at God's War's center, if viewed as a Thriller style chase, is not particularly successful. Much is made of Nyx's abilities, and she is indeed dangerous and possessed of a ferocious will. But she is ambushed and captured. Endlessly, again and again. Hurley can write a gripping action scene, but the grand arc of her plot basically consists in the reader sitting back without ever seeing much of the investigation itself and waiting for Nyx to get kidnapped the next time. Luckily, though she doesn't display the tightest plotting skills, Hurley does excel at character and at world building, and her characters' interactions and needs drive the reader and the story on as its futility becomes clearer.

As one might expect, the scale widens as the novel progresses. Or, at least, it seems to. Often, in God's War, what seems a new vista is simply a vast new continuation of the old. It's not long into the book that we get a sense of Umayma's place in the larger universe. There are many ships and factions out there, many so alien in their level of technology they couldn't have put in at the old port if they wanted to (p. 11). For all that space, though, the simple truths of strife are not escaped. After all, "They fight another of God's wars out there in the dark, can you believe it?" (p. 9)

So it is with the game changing technologies that Nyx chases. They could, perhaps, end the war. But they would not end it with peace but with incredible suffering and destruction. By the novel's end, Nyx is doing her best to destroy that technology, to ensure that neither side can wreak such havoc. But hers, even should she succeed, will not be a victory like that of the secret agent who keeps the nuclear bomb from the terrorist. Nasheen and Chenja are already quite capable at the whole death and destruction thing. At best, Nyx is sparing her world the fire by holding it down in the frying pan.

As Nyx's life swallows her hunt, the war comes to swallow not only the hunt but Nyx and everything in the novel. As we close, the war has not been changed, and even our protagonists have not been saved from its darkness. The novel ends with two sentiments. The first comes from the Queen when she says: "Know that what I do, I do for the good of Nasheen." (p. 283) The reader has no reason to doubt her, and the argument that she presents seems logical. But after so much destruction and pain, the words seem beyond hollow. Finally, the queen says:

"There are no happy endings, Nyxnissa."

"I know," Nyx said. "Life keeps going." (p. 285)

Life keeps going and so does the war. In its cracks, Nyx and those like her exist, tied inextricably to the war and yet determined to make their own path through it. Following them is not a cheery experience, but it is a powerful one.

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