Xena, Sarah Connor, Padme Amidala, Honor Harrington, Mara Jade, Max Guevara, Red Sonja, Mena, Arya, Ellen Ripley, Vin, Princess Leia, Trinity, and on and on goes the list of kick-ass female protagonists in science fiction and fantasy. Each presented to varying degrees of realism, Kameron Hurley thought to add her own to the mix with God’s War—her 2011 debut, and first in the Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy. Many reviewers hot on the book’s ‘original approach to gender, religion, and race’, this reviewer is far more skeptical about the actualities underpinning these grand aspects of society. The novel 100% succeeding in the creation of yet another pulp heroine, whether or not she transcends storytelling to become something original depends on the perspective—or perhaps how much genre the reader has consumed.
God’s War is the brutally bloody and bloodily brutal story of Nyx, government assassin, and, when the need arises, black market mercenary. The war zone between her homeland Nasheen and Chenja so filled with the remnants of nuclear, biological, and chemical residue, any deserting soldier trying to sneak back into Nasheen is caught and killed by Nyx and other bel dame assassins, a severed head the only proof needed to collect bounty. War perpetual in Nasheen, all men are sent to the front, women ruling the streets and society. Asked by the queen one day to run a black ops mission that just might bring an end to the war, Nyx crosses the border into the enemy’s territory with her team of operatives and there, at times with only her strength and will to rely upon, comes face to face with the cycles of internecine violence that have been the impetus of her life.
Corpses by the roadside, unnameable filth clogging the gutters, cancers and open sores, insects forever buzzing, dust clouding the air, and threats to life and limb constantly hanging above—God’s War is DYSTOPIA, in case you didn’t notice. At times overdoing itself, trying to wedge in that last detail to sensationalize the squalor and violence, the novel is as much an exercise in presenting the bleakest possible living conditions as it is complex, neo-cyberpunk plotting. The world imagined is so bleak, in fact, it makes the crux on which the plot depends, meaningless. Why should anyone care whether a villain seeks to make the world a shittier place if it’s already as shitty as can be?
God’s War a work of science fantasy (or as Farah Mendelsohn calls it, “sword and sorcery far future fantasy”), bug magic permeates nearly every facet of Nasheenian life. A forced effect, the reader is offered bug-fueled cars, bug-fueled telecommunication, and bug-fueled healing magic that rarely synergizes with the visceral realities of the war torn society, oppressive heat, killing, torture, and blood, sweat, and tears otherwise driving the plot. Never explained beyond one hand-wavy line: “altering pheromones with thought to reprogram insects at the cellular level”, bug magic is nevertheless located in every nook and cranny of story. Insect tech not enough, Hurley introduces shapeshifters—another particularly hand-wavy ingredient—to the stew. God’s War, with its science-fantasy, noir sensibility, is as genre as genre can be.
And therein, to me, lies the main problem with God’s War: wanting to be both pulp and have a humanist agenda. Hurley herself explains: “I wanted Nyx to have that bloody-mindedness that the best of our epic male bad-asses have, without losing her complexity or humanity.” In hindsight, I’m sure Hurley can see the task she set out for herself as impossible. You can’t be uber-violent every moment of your day, live in a world 90% assassins, get into one bloody duel after another, and retain your humanity. Such characters and setups exist only in comic books, and layering on ideas like: “I kill because I love” (my quote, not Hurley’s) only gets a character to the second dimension, not the third of actual people. There are moments Nyx garners the reader’s understanding (the denouement perhaps the strongest point), but the extreme inclusion of pulp devices and violence fails to serve a story with believable commentary on being human or to be in dialogue with anything beyond oh, another kick-ass heroine and the classic “chase hero, capture hero, torture hero, hero escapes or is rescued - repeat” that ensues. By simple comparison, George Orwell also wrote a powerful dystopia, but it’s one the reader can relate to for its plausibility and personal relevancy. God’s War lacks this from every perspective save the main characters’ emotional input, all else larger than life. Unable to eat its cake and have it too, the result is the oxymoron: realist pulp.
On the surface, politics, religion, and race would also appear to be on the novel’s agenda. Nina Allen, in her Arcfinity review of the novel, describes God’s War as being a “brilliantly sardonic, sideways depiction of so many current aspects of contemporary real-world conflict, racial oppression and gender politics”. This view is, in fact, incidental. Hurley cites Frank Herbert, China Mieville and a handful of other writers as the inspirations for religion, race, etc. in the novel, not contemporary world politics or research into the sects and sub-sects of Middle Eastern religion. And thank goodness, because if one of Hurley’s points was that Muslims are lacking the wisdom to prevent perpetual war, the novel would be a travesty of cultural appropriation. So again, what outwardly appears like something purposeful reveals itself to be only a means to an end—a violent, bloody, pointless end—upon closer inspection.
Collecting my thoughts on God’s War regarding gender, I keep going back to Mary Gentle’s Ash: A Secret History. Also a story about a young woman fighting for place in a brutal world, at no time does the reader doubt Ash is a woman. Nyx, on the other hand, could be a man for the majority of the novel. Sure, she sells her womb in the opening line, but the fact it can easily be replaced with bug magic, not to mention she shows no indications of settling down and becoming domestic, renders the sacrifice meaningless. (See Bacigalupi’s “People of Sand and Slag” for just how meaningless such biotech renders the precocity of the corporeal.) If I’m not mistaken, there are other scenes wherein Nyx sacrifices herself to protect the team, the implication being (though never directly stated, so perhaps I’m putting words in Hurley’s mouth) that it’s a protective, womanly act, not that of the typical lone male hero. But ask a male veteran whether men are capable of feeling the need to protect the brotherhood by sacrificing themselves in war, and see what they say. Seeing the manner in which Gentle actually pulls off the ‘mother hen’ metaphor (for lack of a better expression), Hurley’s character treatment is rendered neutral—neither male- or female-centric. Thus with comparisons such as Ash available, I’m not convinced changing the pronoun ‘she’ to ‘he’ would alter anything significant about Hurley’s novel.
In the end, God’s War is an ambitious book plot-wise that I think many people are misinterpreting as something greater; the manner in which politics, race, and religion manifest themselves an inch below the surface does not belie deeper discussion. Hurley has done nothing beyond creating another larger-than-life heroine with little real-world relevancy. Posing as a work of extreme third wave feminism, its gender goals are likewise gutted by pulp setting, devices, and plotting that never fully engage the complexities of character aimed at. The bug magic, shapeshifting, endless and unrealistic violence—little conflates with Nyx’s character beyond sensationalism to achieve symbolic, allusive, or literary value. He book is instead a frustrated, angry piece bent on violence. Nyx lashes out at the world, drawing others into her personal melee of confusion and lack of purpose, but is unable to come to any meaningful resolution (perhaps for the later books in the trilogy?). Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels are thus the strongest analog to Hurley’s. Each use equivocal ideologies, ultra-violence, might-makes-right, a murderous hero, and a dreary depiction of existence as a means to releasing a barrage of blood, guts, and gore that rights wrongs perceptible only in escapist fiction. Unfortunately, dime a dozen is the value of most fantasy heroines, and God’s War does nothing to change the balance.