History is Another Country: South African Influences on a Fictional World at War

Kameron Hurley is an award-winning writer and freelance copywriter who grew up in Washington State. She is the author of the book God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, and her short fiction has appeared in magazines such LightspeedEscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF

I was totally sold on God’s War by the end of the first amazing page, and I read and reviewed the whole series. When Kameron was offering guest posts for the launch of the UK edition of God’s War, I asked her to write something about how her time in South Africa influenced the series.

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The new UK edition of God's War

The new UK edition of God’s War

I’ve written before about how living and working in South Africa changed the way I view my own country, in particularly how it opened my eyes to our own racism and segregation. But how do those experiences get trickled down into the nitty-gritty creation of a fictional world?

When I went to Clarion University, the best advice I got was to read outside the genre and travel. When I talk about how traveling makes folks better writers, they nod sagely and say, “Well, of course. It’s good to see how things are different elsewhere.” And yeah, sure. You pay for public restrooms in parts of Europe. The bus drivers actually have change they can give you in Durban. In South Africa, the phenomenon of “car guards” was pretty mind-bending, for me. But to be honest, after awhile, you get used to the differences. After just a few weeks or a few months, the world became boringly normal again. It was all just living.

You don’t know what you’ve taken away from a place until you leave it.

I lived in a cockroach-infested flat with a partial view of the Indian Ocean (mostly the cranes in the harbor), using cardboard boxes as desks and tables. Furniture consisted of a bed and some throw pillows. My biggest purchase was a mini-fridge, because not a single flat I looked at came with appliances. Putting fruit out overnight on the counter was a no-no – it’d be rotten or bug infested by morning. I’d grown up in a rainy, temperate climate, and though I’d already traveled a lot and lived for a couple of years in Alaska, by the time I arrived in Durban, the sub-tropical climate (no air conditioning, obviously) took some getting used to.

In truth, it was the climate that I started writing about first, with a story set in a steamy locale with a regular monsoon; a country being invaded by women from a far shore. I spent my days at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, pursuing a Master’s degree in history looking at the African National Congress’s recruitment of students during the war against Apartheid. As I uncovered more about revolutionary armies at the time, and found an internal ANC communication that estimated the number of women in its militant wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, at 20% or more, I started to spend more time looking at the role of women, in particular in revolutionary movements throughout southern Africa during the 80’s.  In turns out, women have always fought.  And though some part of me knew this, well… it’s amazing how, when you first begin to write stories, you find yourself just mimicking everyone else. You read it, you write it.

I had to live something else.

Gods War by Kameron HurleyThis interest, too, bled into my fiction. I found myself now writing about groups of militant women – in steamy locales, no less – working to uncover weapons of mass destruction by any means necessary. I drew heavily on all the research I was doing both in Durban and Cape Town. I spent more hours than I can count sifting through atrocities recorded by The Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

And though I can certainly pretend that it was the distance of these crimes to my own situation that appealed to me, in truth I lived in South Africa from 2002-2003, after my own country had started two unnecessary wars, using the veil of a nationwide tragedy to mangle, bomb, invade and overcome two sovereign nations in a ruthless push for oil resources.

For me, understanding war – why we fight, the things we do, how we motivate our soldiers, how we teach people to kill and, most importantly, the way the victors rewrite it – was something I found easier to untangle from a distance. I wanted to understand conflict. I just didn’t have the objectivity to untangle my own country’s just yet.

At night, I’d lie in my bed smoking, listening to cockroaches skittering around, and I’d listen to the muezzin calling out the athan at the nearby mosque. I never saw the mosque, though. Maybe it was just a recording someone played from a rooftop. I’d grown up in a rural, conservative town on the western coast of the U.S. This was the first time I heard the Muslim call to prayer. And it was the first time I ever walked down a street, or got on a bus, and found that my face was the only white one.

There are things we absorb about the world, intellectually. I can tell you that most people in the world aren’t white, and aren’t Christian. Of course not. But I came from a country that had worked very hard to segregate its citizens, and manufacture a media that told us there wasn’t anything but what they showed us on TV.  I didn’t realize how much I’d internalized those ideas about “how things were” until I actually saw the rest of the world.

Then I got pretty pissed off.

Because I started to see it everywhere, especially in the fiction I both wrote and read. The default white. The default Christianity, or Christianity-inspired atheism. It was everywhere I looked, building a narrative of a world that was a lie. Perpetuating a reality that had never existed.

I figured I could be part of that narrative. I could feed that monster, the monster narrative that made it so simple, so easy, so obvious, for a nation to respond to a tragedy with violence. To dedicate itself to a war with people it didn’t truly, emotionally, see as people. We had written them out – and it’s easy to bomb and obliterate what we don’t see every day.

Or, I could write something different. About different people. A different place. Another war, fed by outside interests and grand alien nations, and the people struggling to make lives for themselves in the wreckage. I could write outside the expected narrative, and maybe figure out my own world’s fucked up wars in the process.

For my non-SA readers, this is a bakkie, which you may know as a pickup truck. Pronounced "bucky", not "backy". On Hurley's planet of Umayma, the bakkies run on cockroaches.

For my non-SA readers, this is a bakkie, which you may know as a pickup truck. Pronounced “bucky”, not “backy”. On Hurley’s planet of Umayma, the bakkies run on cockroaches.

Years later, that book was God’s War, with its bakkies and veldt and broederbond and the haunting sound of the muezzin, all mixed up with bug magic and alien ships and prayer wheels and bounty hunting.

Yes, it was broken sometimes, and flawed, and imperfect. Like me. Like the world.

I can’t say I learned any more about my war, except that it was just one in a long history of wars fought by big nations over limited resources. I’m not sure there’s comfort in that. I’m not sure I want to feel resigned to it. It was a book only I could write, and only I could fail at. And in the end, the war was their war. The world was their world.

I had to believe they could do better with it.

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God’s War was not previously available in SA, but will now begin shipping to SA stores on 22 January 2014. ISBN: 9780091952785. Approximate retail price R180 (thanks to Dave de Burgh for this info!)

Rapture by Kameron Hurley

Rapture by Kameron HurleyTitle: Rapture
Series: Bel Dame Apocrypha
Author: 
Kameron Hurley
Publisher: 
Night Shade Books
Published: 
1 November 2012
Genre: 
science fiction
Source:
 eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 8/10

It’s seven years after the events of Infidel, and for once Nyx is living a peaceful life in exile. She even has a girlfriend. But Nyx isn’t Nyx unless she’s hunting and killing people, so when she’s  pardoned and offered a job by the bel dames, she takes it. The centuries-long war between Chenja and Nasheen is ending, but the ceasefire is creating civil conflict, largely because of the large numbers of men and boys returning from the front. For centuries, most Nasheenian men have been little more than cannon fodder. Now unemployed and unemployable, they have little social value in a country where they’ve always been treated as second-class citizens.

This led to formation of the Broederbond – a men’s advocacy movement headed by one of Nyx’s old enemies. But this man has disappeared, and Fatima, head of the bel dame council, wants Nyx to bring him back alive. If he dies he could become a revolution-inspiring martyr. Fatima doesn’t seem opposed to gender equality; rather, the fear is that the men could form a “new, repressive government that puts bel dames and all other women back under some archaic law they carve out of the Kitab”. A more progressive government needs to be formed, and of course the bel dames want to have some of that power too.

Nyx accepts the job, and puts together a new team of mercenaries for a journey to some of the most remote and bizarre regions of Umayma.

Like God’s War and Infidel, the plot is based on a sociopolitical conspiracy that I find a bit difficult to follow. It’s full of twists and betrayals, most of the information comes in two large info dumps at the beginning and the end, and for most of the book it was all a bit vague. I tended to focus on the the more immediate goals of the plot, without always being clear on how they fit into the whole. At any rate, Nyx’s journey is so arduous and the characters have to try so hard to simply stay alive that the Nasheenian politics they’re suffering for seems abstract and remote. In other words, it didn’t matter too much to me that I couldn’t keep track of the politics because there was so much more going on. Rapture has some the best world-building I’ve read in a while, great characters, loads of action, and of course the kind of fluid sexuality and gendering that is one of the best things about the Bel Dame Apocrypha.

The world-building is what really made this is great book for me. The planet Umayma always a bit different, with its bug-tech, shape-shifters, magicians who are nothing like regular magicians, and Nasheen, an Islamic city where women are in charge. It’s a very alien, very dangerous world that, thousands of years ago, was forced into the image of another world (Earth?).

In Rapture, we travel far beyond the relatively tame cities and get a striking idea of exactly how vast and alien Umayma is. Desert monsters, weird organic tech, structures made out of flesh, pyromancers, sand that eats you alive, dead bodies reanimated by bugs… it’s totally outlandish and quite fucking awesome. Most of the action (of which there is no shortage) is entwined with the world building too. One of the most intriguing characters is a mysterious ‘conjuror’ with badass powers that tap into the fabric of the world, and a lot of knowledge about Umayma’s history. Inaya also returns, and we learn a bit about her incredible shifter powers and what she can do with them.

She’s now one of my favourite characters, and I’m glad that she has her own parallel plot in Rapture. Inaya did little more than weep in book one, was revealed to have incredible powers as a shifter in book two, and is now secretly leading a shifter rebellion in Ras Tieg. Of all the the character arcs, hers is the most triumphant, and the most spectacular. Seeing Inaya in action is always a thrill, and the strength of her character is formidable.

Rhys has a much more pathetic story. He never found his feet after the bel dames ruined his life, and ends up stranded in the desert, then virtually enslaved to a man who saves him. His story seemed random until it reunited him with Nyx. Their love-hate relationship is still an interesting one, although far less hopeful. Rhys is bitter after having lost so much, and Nyx is too callous a person to rebuild broken bridges. With each book my feelings about them changed a bit, and this time I favoured Nyx.

Previously, my sympathies often fell with Rhys as the more gentle character, despite his many misogynistic religious beliefs. I like Nyx more, but she’s a brute, and in Infidel Rhys suffers a great deal because of her.

This time I found him a more unlikeable character. He has a tough life, but the way he treats his wife Elahyiah left me with little sympathy for him. Rhys was always in a position where he was either unable to exercise his beliefs about women (in Nasheen or as part of Nyx’s team) or where those beliefs were benign (living an affluent lifestyle with a similarly pious wife). Now hardship reveals the more sinister side of his character, as he exercises dominance over his wife with little regard for her feelings.

Admittedly, Nyx acts like a stone cold bitch most of the time, but she often seems to be hiding the fact that she actually cares about the people around her. With Rhys, it’s more like his gentle nature hides the fact that he can be a complete asshole to women.

As a result, I was pleased that Rhys didn’t have a big role in this book, which has more interesting people on the page. Eshe is back, the raven-boy who Nyx ‘adopted’ in Infidel. He starts out with Inaya and her rebellion but returns to Nyx, still looking up to her when almost everyone else hates or fears her. Other members of Nyx’s team include a beautiful boy fresh from the front, a petite spider-like girl with impeccable sniping skills, a mad magician, and another bel dame. Each has their own story, personality, and culture clashes with other team members, adding to the world-building and making this is the most memorable of Nyx’s teams.

As usual, Hurley makes most of her characters suffer greatly. Nyx looks thoroughly battered at this point (she’s lived about ten-years longer than almost any bel dame or bounty hunter), and of course there’s only going to be more fighting, more scars. She and her team also endure a prolonged slog through the desert that seems impossible to survive. This went on for too long, but the pace picks up once it’s over and we get to the really weird parts of Umayma.

Rapture is definitely my favourite of the Bel Dame Apocrypha series, and despite being the last book it’s the one that made me hunger most for stories set on Umayma. In fact, it made me like the world so much that I felt a bit sad when I reached the end of the novel. I was satisfied with the conclusion to Nyx’s story, but I didn’t want to leave Umayma behind. So I asked Hurley about it on Twitter and luckily, she’s got another three books planned:

So, yay 🙂 Hurley’s sf is the kind of thing I want to see more of in the genre, so I’m curious to see what series she come out with next, and what else she’s got planned for Umayma.

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

Bel Dame Apocrypha eBook Giveaway!

Night Shade Books, my favourite sff and horror publisher, is being particularly awesome with a giveaway of the first two books in Bel Dame Apocrypha series. You might recall that I reviewed the award-winning God’s War earlier this year, and was very impressed with the writing, world-building and character relationships. I’m reading book two, entitled Infidel, at the moment and plan to post a review soon-ish. The final book, Rapture, is coming out on November 6, so Night Shade Books has left you with no excuse not to check this series out.

Here are the details, copied from the email I got from them:

In anticipation of the forthcoming release of Rapture, Kameron Hurley’s bone-shattering conclusion to the epic Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy, that’s exactly what Night Shade Books is giving away. We don’t want you to miss out on any of the “smart, dark, visceral and wonderfully, hectically entertaining” action of this trilogy! So we are giving away the first two titles in the series, the 2012 Nebula Award-nominated God’s War and the awesome Infidel, absolutely free!

 

And, once you’re hooked (as we know you will be), be sure to pick up the exciting conclusion, Rapture, available 11/6/12!

 

Don’t believe the hype? Find out FREE for yourself. Just send an email to Beldamegiveaway@nightshadebooks.com. Night Shade will return fire with an email giving you the info you need to download the files for God’s War and Infidel. Both Epub and Mobi files are available.

 

Rapture is available for pre-order from many of your favorite retailers!

Review of God’s War by Kameron Hurley

Title: God’s War
Series: Bel Dame Apocrypha #1
Author: Kameron Hurley
Published: 18 January 2011
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Genre: science fiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

God’s War has an opening that should not be ignored. It’s one of the best I’ve ever read, and it continues to impress me. Author Kameron Hurley elegantly weaves an unbelievable amount of characterisation, plot and intrigue into those slick opening lines, and one thing you know for sure after reading them is that this is not conventional sci fi.

Set on the planet Umayma in a post-Earth future, God’s War does not make the usual assumption that, if humans go out and colonise planets, it’ll be western nations that do it. Umayma was settled three thousand years ago by a group of Muslims now known as the First Families. Since then, the world has been divided into two main states – Nasheen and Chenja. Religious differences between the two eventually led to a war that has now been raging for two centuries.

Nyx is a Nasheenian ex-soldier and a bel dame – an elite government-trained assassin. In Nasheen, boys are sent to war at sixteen, and they can “either come home at forty or come home in a bag. No exceptions”. As a bel dame, Nyx has spent the last three years cutting the heads off draft dodgers and deserters. But she also works as a bounty hunter on the side, and now she’s started “selling out her womb on the black market”, using it to grow zygotes for gene pirates. This ‘black work’ gets her in trouble with the other bel dames. She loses her prestigious position and carries on as a bounty hunter with a team of mercenaries, including a magician (not what you think), a shapeshifter, and another hunter who once tried to kill her.

The magician is Rhys – a Chenjan exile. Rhys and Nyx are completely different people – he’s a devout Muslim, she’s an atheist, and that’s just the start – but they need each other and end up forming a bond that’s both comforting and frustrating. Together with their team, they accept a bounty from the Nasheenian queen to track down an alien woman who has the means to end the war, not peacefully, but in one nation’s favour.

There is so much about this novel that I found admirable or at least memorable. There’s the weird bug-tech for example – almost all the technology on Umayma runs on bugs. It sounds stupid and it made me squirm (I loathe bugs) but somehow Hurley makes it work. The magicians in the novel are not the usual fantasy kind, but people with an innate ability to control bugs by altering their pheromones and reprogramming insects at the cellular level. In this way bugs are used for many things, from providing light to screening for bioweapons and regrowing limbs or entire bodies. Even the bakkies (pick-up trucks) run on bugs (and I must say I was delighted to see the word “bakkie”, along with other South African terms, like veldt). It’s scientific rather than magical, and I would certainly call this sci fi, not fantasy, but the term ‘magician’ is apt, because it accounts for the fact that the Umaymans have mastered technology they don’t quite understand.

Attention to little details like this is what makes writing good, and if the opening lines didn’t convince you, then I need to tell you now that the writing is excellent – the kind of word craft that makes me want to buy this novel in hardcopy. I would be a poor reader and a shameful sci fi fan if I didn’t have this on my shelf to re-read a few times. God’s War has almost everything going for it, most notably the characters, who feel so real they’re almost tangible, and a fascinating socio-religious culture clash.

Nasheen and Chenja are two vastly different Islamic societies. In Nasheen, “the queen decreed that God had no place for men in mosques unless they had served at the front”. All boys are sent to war and most don’t come back, so society is ruled and run by women, which has completely altered the way they practice Islam. Few women wear the veil, men and women pray in the same space, technology takes care of any reproductive issues, and there’s simply no culture of submission or modesty among women. Same-sex relationships between women are not only common but celebrated (although still illegal for men), and Nyx, who is bisexual, frequently uses sex both for fun and as a means to cultivate useful relationships. Some of the non-gendered Islamic laws have also been discarded – alcohol is happily consumed, and artworks depicting the Prophet are common.

Rhys’s explanation for this “godlessness” is that Nasheenians have allowed the violence of war to lead them astray:

Chenjan women could submit to god and wield a rifle with equal ease, but Nasheenian women had allowed their propensity for violence to pollute their beliefs. Wielding a rifle, they believed, made them men in the eyes of God, and men did not have to practice modesty or submission to anyone but God. Nasheenian women had forgotten their place in the order of things.

As you can tell, Chenja is a far more conservative nation. Society is divided into “purists” and “orthodox” with a scattering of minority sects. Atheists are killed. Women veil themselves, homosexuality is forbidden, alcohol is banned, as are images of living things, particularly the Prophet (if you’re curious, here’s a Wikipedia article on aniconism in Islam). In Nasheen, Rhys is appalled at the way women stare openly at him, “like harlots” and it’s only when he sees their version of Islam that he truly appreciates why the two nations are at war:

In the mosque, forehead pressed against the floor, Rhys never understood the war. It was only when he raised his head and saw the women praying among him, bareheaded, often bare-legged, shamelessly displaying full heads of hair and ample flesh, that he questioned what these women truly believed they were submitting to. Certainly not the will of God.

It’s a credit to the author’s skill that Rhys is not portrayed simplistically as a hateful fanatic. On the contrary, Rhys is a gentle, likeable character. It’s easy to empathise with him without agreeing with him. In her culture clash with Rhys, you might also expect Nyx to be held up as a paragon of women’s liberation, but she’s as flawed and damaged as anyone else. This is not a book about idols or individuals with unprecedented talents or powers. Rhys is a crap magician, although good with a pistol. Nyx is a skilled assassin, but so is every other bel dame. She can seem manipulative and promiscuous or just comfortable and open with her sexuality, while Rhys seems prejudiced by religion at some points but admirably disciplined and committed at others. My point here is that these character feel real, feel human, because they’re too complex to be easily judged or categorised.

Similarly, Nasheen and Chenja do not fall into black and white categories of utopia and dystopia. Women may have more freedom in Nasheen, but Rhys notes, with sadness, that they have old widows begging in the streets and young women fighting in boxing matches for money. And if women are disempowered by religion in Chenja, in Nasheen it is men who are treated like second-class citizens. Nasheen is also rife with racism – the citizens are not white, but they’re more fair-skinned than Chenjans like Rhys, who is beaten up and discriminated against by Nasheenian women because of his dark skin.

I found the contrast between the two societies fascinating, but I have one criticism – Rhys is the only devout main character, so most of the theology in the novel comes from him. He speaks about both Chenja and Nasheen, but is obviously biased towards his own nation. There is no real voice for Nasheenian theology, which would be so much more interesting because the way they practice Islam is so different. Nyx is a major Nasheenian voice in the novel, but as an atheist she has nothing to say about the way her society reconciles their practices with their religion.

However, there is some compensation in the relationship between Nyx and Rhys, which was one of my favourite things about the novel. They disagree about most things and don’t really get along – he thinks she’s a violent, crude, godless woman, and she thinks he’s a weak, pious dope. Their conversations often include an interesting clash of ideas. Nevertheless, each finds inexplicable solace in the other:

The same woman who could cut the head off a man with a dagger in sixty seconds could ease his mind in the face of a thousand angry Nasheenian women. She could banish all thoughts of God, of submission. Some days she made him feel like an insect, a roach, the worst thing to crawl across the world. And then there were times, like now, when she brought him a stillness he had known only with his forehead pressed to a pray rug.

Nyx is also calmed by Rhys – there are a few instances when she’s stressed or scared and asks him to read to her. She doesn’t like what he reads (poetry or the Quran) but she finds his voice soothing. There isn’t any romance here, just a strange kind of friendship between two people who don’t really want to be friends.

The only real shortcoming of this novel is that the plot doesn’t live up to the brilliant opening lines, and it pales in comparison to other aspects of the book. It’s quite slow, plodding along in the background while culture and character dominate the foreground. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, but while some novels are written with plot as a minor feature, this one felt more like the plot was meant to be a strong element but failed. It’s only in the last quarter or so that plot comes to the fore and drives the story. The rest of the time I found it vague and largely uninteresting.

On the bright side, there is a fair bit of intrigue that I’m hoping will be more thoroughly explored in the sequels Infidel (01/10/2011) and Rapture (due 06/11/2012). The alien woman that Nyx and Rhys have to track down is actually human, but is considered alien because she is from another colonised planet, and her pale skin sets her apart from the Umaymans. It’s implied early on that these ‘aliens’ are from a Christian society and there’s a suggestion that Umayma is not the only planet where humans are fighting a religious war. This raises a lot of questions about the nature of the human race when it left Earth to colonise other planets, not to mention the future of Umayma when Islam isn’t the only theory of God being fought over.

God’s War almost instantly got me interested in reading the rest of the Bel Dame Apocrypha series. It combines many of the things I’m most interested in – science fiction, religion, gender, sexuality and good writing – and although I thought the plot could have been stronger, the characters and world-building more than made up for that. I’d recommend this to all sci fi fans, not just because it’s such a damn good book, but also because it brings some variety to a very western, male-dominated genre.

 

Buy a copy of God’s War at The Book Depository