Review of Infidel by Kameron Hurley

Title: Infidel
Series: Bel Dam Apocrypha #2
Author: Kameron Hurley
Published: 
1 October 2011
Publisher: 
Night Shade Books
Genre: 
science fiction
Source: 
eARC from the author
Rating: 
7/10

Please note: this review contains minor spoilers for Book One in the series.

Nyx had been better dressed, better armed, and better supported, once: running with her bel dame sisters instead of a cocky boy shifter and a reformed venom addict. Now, instead of collecting blood debt, she was babysitting diplomats and cutting up petty debtors when the First Familes paid her in hard currency. It felt more honest. But a lot less honorable.

This is how we find Nyx at the opening of Infidel, the second book in the Bel Dame Apocrypha series. The Nyx we met at the beginning of God’s War is now just a memory of when she “used to be young, and fiery, and strong. She used to be able to cut off a head in forty-five seconds with a dull blade. She used to be able to drive a bakkie like a demon”. Now, at 38, she is old, tired, and ashamed of the way her life has lost dignity and meaning, although she’s still very much the emotionally dysfunctional hard-ass from book one. Nyx is offered a chance to reclaim the prestige of being a government assassin when a rogue bel dame tries to kill her. A member of the bel dame council asks her to hunt down such rogues and in return, Nyx can have her bel dame status reinstated. The catch is that the rogues are going after the Queen, starting a civil war to bring down the monarchy and give the bel dames power over the country. This will weaken Nasheen, making it vulnerable to Chenja in their ongoing centuries-old war, and Nyx is nothing if not a patriot. Still, it’s a lot for her to handle, especially when she finds that she’s been infected with a strange, debilitating virus that does far worse than simply threaten to kill her.

Meanwhile, Rhys, Khos, and Inaya are living in the prosperous, genteel city of Tirhan, after abandoning Nyx at the end of God’s War. They’ve settled into quiet domestic lives: Khos and Inaya are married, Rhys has a beautiful if scatterbrained wife, and each family has two young children. But both Rhys and Inaya are involved in government work related to the plot that Nyx is caught up in, and you know it’s only a matter of time before she arrives in Tirhan to disrupt if not ruin their lives. Not that Nyx needs much of an excuse; it’s been six years and she still misses Rhys badly, even thought she would never admit it.

Their strange relationship was one of my favourite things about God’s War, after the excellent writing and worldbuilding, all of which made up for a somewhat lacklustre story. In Infidel, Rhys and Nyx are far apart for much of the novel and the writing is good but less arresting. Hurley continues with her excellent worldbuilding, but although Umayma is still an unusual planet, it’s now familiar and less exciting. On the bright side the story is stronger, better paced and more focused. It’s a good book, but less notable that its predecessor.

Mostly, I missed the weird character dynamics between Nyx and Rhys. They certainly made a very odd pair – a drunken, violent atheist, and a devout Muslim with extremely traditional (you could say misogynistic) views about women. It seemed unlikely that they could work together or even respect each other, but they found some kid of solace in each other’s company. I’m not even sure what to call their relationship– it wasn’t exactly a friendship, but it wasn’t just a partnership and it certainly wasn’t a romance.

In Infidel, this great character dynamic is lost, and I found that I don’t really like either of them that much. Nyx is too coarse and too violent. I prefer Rhys’s calm, gentle nature, but I can’t ignore his beliefs about women. Together, they balanced out each other’s flaws – Nyx was enjoyably brash in contrast to the reserved Rhys, and when he worked with Nyx you could forget the fact that Rhys believes she should cover her hair and avoid eye contact with men. Apart, Nyx is a brute and Rhys is a sexist bore. Their reunion doesn’t help much; the past has left too many scars, and the intervening six years have changed Rhys’s life too much.

I found Nyx to be almost thoroughly unlikeable this time around. She’s desperate, reckless, and doesn’t deserve the loyalty of companions. My sympathies actually fell with anyone allied with Nyx because, frankly, that woman is BAD NEWS. She might be a hero, she might be the only person who can get the (dangerous) job done, but she inevitably leaves a trail of pain and chaos in her wake and I’m never quite sure how I feel about her actions. I’m partly hoping she’ll leave poor Rhys alone in Book Three, Rapture. There are moments when he seems to miss the bounty-hunter lifestyle he had with Nyx, but for the most part he would be better off if she stayed the hell away from him.

I don’t necessarily mean all of this as a criticism, although novels are a bit less enjoyable when you don’t like or admire the character you spend the most time with. But I’ve got nothing against unlikeable protagonists per se, and we’re clearly meant to be critical of Nyx. I’d actually like to see her team up with another polar opposite – Inaya, a deeply conservative woman who spent much of her role in God’s War either crying or complaining. Inaya was a shifter who hated shifters, and although she suffered some tragedies that made me feel sorry for her, I couldn’t bring myself to like her. In Infidel however, she became my favourite character – she’s more assured and has unbelievably powerful skills as a shifter, even though she hates using them.

It’s cool to see her in action and, as I mentioned, the story as a whole is clearer and better-paced than the first book. I’m generally not all that interested in political intrigue, but the politics of the plot are simple enough, and Nyx’s purpose boils down to a smaller-scale investigation that involves tracking down the rogue bel dames. It’s very violent; if you’ve read God’s War you’ll know what to expect, although Hurley puts her characters through even greater ordeals this time.

And like the first book, Infidel offers you the pleasure of seeing women driving the plot, and women being fighters without having to be skinny, pretty, fair-skinned women too. There are lots of kick-ass heroines in genre fiction these days, but if book covers are anything to go by, they’re almost always cute white girls who look more like runway models than experienced fighters. The bel dames are big women, heavy with the muscle they need to do their job, bearing the scars of their brutal experiences. Nyx’s body takes such a battering that I started getting seriously concerned about how much more she could take.

Luckily, she ends the novel fully prepared for another bloody adventure in Rapture, although I wouldn’t be too surprised if it ended in her death. Although Infidel wasn’t quite as great as I’d hoped it to be, it’s a good book nevertheless and I’ll be finishing off the series soon.

 

Buy Infidel at The Book Depository

Review of Amped by Daniel H. Wilson

Title: Amped
Author: Daniel H. Wilson
Published: 05 June 2012
Publisher: Doubleday, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday
Genre: science fiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5/10

In a near future, the world has cured many mental and physical disabilities using cybernetic enhancements. However, the technology doesn’t only correct dysfunction – it can also amplify people’s abilities, hence the term ‘amp’ for the enhancements and the people who possess them. In the United States however, religious groups and other conservatives have come to fear and hate amps.

Owen Gray is an amped highschool teacher who for some reason has blinded himself to these social developments, but suddenly the changes hit him like a sledgehammer. One of his students jumps from the roof of the school building after deciding that she no longer wants to live in a world that hates people like her. On his way home, Owen sees evidence of how anti-amp society has become, and before the end of the day he’s lost his job and his home because the government has revoked amps’ rights to enter into contracts.

Owen goes to see his father, the surgeon who gave him his amp in the first place. With things becoming more dangerous by the minute, Owen’s father reveals that his amp is not just for correcting epilepsy as Owen was made to believe. The truth is that Owen once suffered severe head trauma,  and to save his son’s life his father gave him “something extra” – stolen hardware that was powerful enough to compensate for Owen’s injuries. With the authorities coming to confiscate his research, Owen’s father has no time for explanations, but sends Owen to find a man named Jim who can tell him more.

So Owen goes on the run and travels to Eden, a trailer park that has become an uneasy haven for amps and the loved ones willing to stand by them. It’s there that he learns of a militant group of amps who want more than just equal rights. Owen is not certain that he wants to get involved, but with the powerful tech he’s carrying, he might be obliged – or forced – to take part in the fight.

Amped moves with blinding speed at the beginning of the novel and maintains a brisk pace throughout. One moment Owen is trying in vain to save a student from killing herself and the next he’s on the run after losing almost everything that defines his life as he knows it. It’s a quick, easy read, but not a particularly good one.

While the fast pace is nice, the downfall of Amped is that it’s too familiar a story to be really enjoyable or get a good rating. The story goes like this: A majority fears a minority for being different, and in this case also for being physically and mentally superior to other human beings. The first group reacts by making the second group socially inferior and institutionalising discrimination against them.

The oppressed minority – and the protagonist who represents them – is faced with the moral dilemma of whether or not to react with violence. It’s the obvious, natural reaction, since they are angry at being treated in a cruel manner and most people would agree that the oppressors deserve to have their heads kicked in. However, violence just plays right into the oppressor’s hands by making the oppressed look like the moral degenerates that society claims they are, thereby justifying further violence against them.

So, patient diplomacy or blood and bullets? Well, whatever your moral position, we all know which option is more entertaining. To make things easier on the characters and more palatable for the reader, circumstances force the protagonist to fight even though he’s not that keen on violence, and thus he gets to kick ass on the moral high ground.

And that pretty much sums up the plot of Amped. The tech and its social consequences are plausible, but the resulting story is conventional. No innovations, no great insights, real surprises. Owen is revealed to be the archetypal ordinary-man-turned-hero when his amp turns out to be top-secret military-grade stuff that turns him into a supersoldier. As a result there’s plenty of action, but sadly not much worth thinking about.

The novel focuses too much on martial capabilities, and not enough on more interesting things like super-smart amps (who apparently can’t come up with any ideas for dealing with this conflict) or the more day-to-day changes that amps would cause in society. For example, how would the job market change when amps can be so much smarter and stronger than normal people? Should amp children be allowed to compete with normal children in school? Wouldn’t normal people want amps too? It’s a shame that the book doesn’t get into these issues.

The only debate about the ethics of amps is in the crap that comes from extremists like the rednecks who love any excuse to beat the shit out of people without having to worry about the law, or Joseph Vaughn, who campaigns against amps in a bid for political power and uses religion to argue that amps aren’t human and constitute a threat to “the moral foundation that our civilization is built upon”. The novel mostly sticks to a simple black and white story of pro-amp vs. anti-amp where pro-amp = good and anti-amp = bad. There’s no sympathetic anti-amp character who’s just a normal person with reasonable concerns about this technology, only violent fanatics raving about human purity. There are some bad pro-amp characters but they’re portrayed as freaks with older or military tech that basically turned them into mutants and killing machines.

This kind of moral simplicity is boring. You need a few snags and snarls to get caught up in. On the whole, there was nothing about Amped that I found engaging enough for me to care much about the characters or the outcome of the story. The novel is decently written and its core idea is sound, but I think Wilson wasted its potential by letting it play out in such a conventional, uncomplicated manner.

 

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Review of Germline by T.C. McCarthy

Title: Germline
Author: T.C. McCarthy
Series: The Subterrene War #1
Published: 
26 July 2011
Publisher: 
Orbit
Genre:
 science fiction, military sf
Source: own copy
Rating: 5/10

“I’ll never forget the smell: human waste, the dead, and rubbing alcohol – the smell of a Pulitzer.”

That’s what journalist Oscar Wendall thinks as he makes his way to the front line of the Subterrene War. It’s the 22nd century and the USA is once again fighting her old favourite enemy, Russia, in a bloody war over the mineral resources buried in the mountains of Kazakhstan (simply referred to as Kaz). Oscar is the first member of the press allowed on the front line (currently underground), but he doesn’t find a story so much as a new life, fighting alongside the soldiers amidst plasma bombs that will cook you alive and flechette bullets that rip you to shreds.

In fact, Oscar is a dreadful journalist but a decent soldier. It’s not long before he gets fired by his paper, but he finds ways of getting back into his armour and out onto the battlefield. He falls in love with one of the “genetics” – beautiful teenage girls genetically engineered to be the USA’s supersoldiers. They’re clones, indoctrinated all their lives with a religion that teaches them to live for war and hope for a glorious death in battle. They’re often on Oscar’s mind and he finds his way from one battlefield, trying to deal with all the horrors of war.

Germline is known as a non-stop, action-packed novel about the brutality of war. This is true. I couldn’t keep track of the number of battle scenes, each of them full of explosions and death. The novel hurtles along from one action scene to the next and apparently doesn’t have much time for things like character development or world building.

The result is that a lot of events or emotions feel tacked on. It’s not that these things are necessarily implausible, but the build-up to them is rushed and insubstantial. The author tells you things that you don’t quite feel. For example, we’re told that fighting underground causes soldiers to be fearful of the surface. In the tunnels, danger comes from only one direction, but topside it can come from multiple directions, with the sky being the most threatening. This makes perfect sense, but it doesn’t feel right for Oscar to develop this fear within the very first chapter. The novel doesn’t give us a chance to really understand the experience of being in the tunnels and the effect it has on people. We just get a quick run-through, and suddenly Oscar is speaking like a war vet.

There are other examples. Oscar makes a few friends among the soldiers and when some of them die he goes on and on about how deeply this affects him. It sounds insincere when these friendships don’t have much time on the page and Oscar doesn’t even bother to learn the soldiers’ real names, going only by their nicknames. When Oscar falls in love with a genetic named Bridgette, he does so in a matter of hours, claiming that it “was easy to fall in love because neither of us was likely to live long anyway” (p.66).

The world building is equally feeble. We’re told almost nothing about the war beyond the simple fact that Russia and the USA (along with some allies) are fighting over mineral resources in Kazakhstan. But how did the war start? What are the metals they’re mining used for? How the hell can the Americans lay claim to mineral resources in Kazakhstan? (my boyfriend answered that last one by pointing out that they’re basically doing the same thing in the Middle East. Fair point). What kind of social changes allowed the USA to regress to the extent that genetics have replaced female soldiers with the idea that there will be more women to give birth to more soldiers? What do US citizens and the rest of the world think of the war? Is McCarthy saving the details for the second and third books in the series?

As a journalist Oscar is the ideal character to give the reader this information, but he’s so bad at his job that he just doesn’t seem interested in any of it; he just wants to be in the warzones with a gun in his hand. I can’t understand how even a barely competent editor could have given him this assignment. Besides being an awful reporter, he’s got a long history of substance abuse. He actually picks up a new drug addiction in the first chapter, and seems to be addicted to being in the war as well. That’s the only good explanation I can think of for why he insists on staying. Oscar himself is rather evasive on the topic. For all his interior monologues on the war, his character is a bit flat. We don’t learn much about anyone else either – a disappointment for me, because I really wanted to know more about the genetics, the most interesting feature of the novel. I wanted to know more about their weird religion (a kind of modified Christianity), the prayers they say before battles, and the fact that they are shot when they turn 18, because their minds become unstable and their bodies begin to rot. Oscar’s obsession with the genetics seems to end at wanting to be close to one of them; he doesn’t ask them many questions when he is.

So let’s face it – the focus of this novel is combat. It’s about the weapons, the armour, the explosions, the gunfire, the corpses. It’s a barrage of bullets, grenades, plasma bombs, blood, gore, faeces, and mangled bodies. We follow Oscar from one battleground to another, with him pontificating about the war in between. He talks about his armour, mostly about how disgusting it is when it comes to waste disposal (or lack thereof). He goes on about either wanting to fight or wanting to get out. He talks about the friends he’s lost. And then a bomb explodes and he’s running for his life.

Despite all the graphic violence, Germline has this odd PG-13 feel to it because anything sexual is glossed over. When Oscar puts on his armour for the first time and hooks up the tubes used for his waste disposal, he refers to his penis as “your you-know-what” (3). Later, there are a few sex scenes, but they’re all just start with a bit of kissing and then fade out with “when we were done” or whatever. It’s like either the author or the publishers are trying to keep this clean enough to market to a teenage audience, and violence, insanely, has always been deemed more acceptable than sex. However, it seems so ridiculous that a man like Oscar is uncomfortable referring bluntly to his own genitals or that he’d go into detail about everything that happens to him but not the sex that he apparently finds so fulfilling. A pity; I think the sex scenes could have done a lot to give a little emotional depth to this novel.

In many ways, this Germline reminds me of The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974) – the constant fighting, the pace, the lack of character development, and a sense that the war is being fought for its own sake, rather than for the reasons stated. But even though I often didn’t understand the science of The Forever War and I found the characters forgettable, it still made an impact on me. You really felt the brutality of the war, and the unbelievable waste of life. It was a short book, but a forceful one.

Germline is longer but has less of an impact. It didn’t live up to the hype, and I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. With its lack of emotional engagement or details about its world, it was often boring. All those action scenes just didn’t do it for me, especially since I didn’t really care what happened to Oscar.

Strangely enough though, I’m actually looking forward to reading the sequel, Exogene. Exogene’s protagonist is a genetic, and shows the war from their perspective. I wanted to whack Oscar over the head for not asking more questions about them, but book 2 will give me a chance to get that story while Oscar won’t be there to get in the way.

Buy Germline (The Subterrene War #1) at The Book Depository