Daily Reads: 5 May 2015

BM bag

Sjoe, I haven’t done one of these for a while! Time to get back into the swing of things. The past month was a bit slow in terms of reading, but I do have a review of Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes in the works and I got my sister Ruth to take a few shots of the book, as you can see above and on the cover of my Facebook page.

I’ve been slacking on my online reading, so yesterday I took some time out to see what had been posted recently. One of the most notable things to pop up on my feed was Cat Hellisen’s new novel Charm, which is available for FREE on her blog in serial form. Here’s the synopsis:

Irene Kerry thinks she’s dealing with her mother’s suicide just fine until the day her best friend Rain falls in love with a much older man. A man who knew her mother, and believes Irene is a magician like her. In order to protect her friend and family, Irene must hunt an ancient magician who steals and eats magic, and discover the truth behind her mother’s life and death.

The first chapter of twenty-two went up on Friday, and subsequent chapters will be posted every Wednesday. If you don’t want to wait, you can buy the whole book on Smashwords.

If you enjoy read-alongs, you’re a Jacqueline Carey fan, or you’ve always wanted to read Kushiel’s Dart, there’s a great read-along starting this week with some of the awesome bloggers who I’ve joined for previous read-alongs. You can find the schedule here. Leave a comment if you want to be added to the mailing list. If you’re interested in this and other read-alongs, you can also join our new Goodreads group – SF/F Read Alongs – to keep in touch.

Then I went trawling for interesting articles on sff. I loved Jennie Goloboy’s article “Never Enough Farmers! Class and Writing Fantasy Novels” in this month’s issue of Apex Magazine. She writes about the way fantasy authors tend to project their modern, middle-class values onto pre-industrial societies where those values or assumptions would never fit. For example, there’s too much focus on towns and cities, given that most people would have been farmers. Too many characters focus on time even though people in that sort of period wouldn’t have had the technology to keep track of time – “none of that ‘I have fourteen summers’ please – that’s still too precise!” she says.

Goloboy proposes a fantasy about a farmer who never leaves the farm. It probably wouldn’t be epic fantasy, but there are lots of place-bound genres – horror, mystery, Gothic, romance. And I think that sounds like a great idea. I think an author like Tom Holt, who also happens to be a historian, could do something amazing with that.

Finally, Foz Meadows has an article about The Importance of Writing Sex Scenes, and things to consider when writing them. I particularly like her comments about the way scenes of positive consensual sex are typically considered gratuitous or taboo while scenes of bad sex, sexual assault or rape are not:

it’s often assumed that positive, consensual sex scenes serve a strictly pornographic function, such that, unless you’re actively trying to titillate your audience, the only sex that ought to appear in other genres is bad sex, or sexual assault, or rape. The logic here is maddening: that only violent, unpleasant or non-consensual sexual encounters can have such a transformative, narratively relevant effect on the characters that you’re justified in showing them in detail, rather than simply fading to black or leaving it up to the reader’s imagination.

[…] if you feel comfortable including rape, sexual assault, bad sex or sex that only one party enjoys in your stories, but aren’t similarly willing to write positive, consensual sex scenes, too, because you think they’re too porny or irrelevant, then you’re a hypocrite.

[…] to the extent that you’re willing to include sexual content at all, it makes no sense – and is, I’d argue, actively problematic – to restrict yourself to purely negative depictions across the board. Sex in all its forms can serve a narrative purpose, and if it also happens to be titillating sometimes, then so what? Literature is meant to make us feel things, and I see no reason bar a culturally ingrained sense of puritan shame that arousal should be considered a less valid, worthy response to evoke than fear, or grief, or horror.

And that’s it from me today guys. I hope I’ve given you some good reads and interesting ideas to chew on. It looks like it’s about pour with rain on this grey day in Cape Town, so I’m going to brew another cup of coffee and get into the grim details of Broken Monsters.

Happy reading!

Daily Reads helps me organise my online reading and share my favourite posts with you. If you know of any good SF/F and other literary articles, link to it in the comments.

Photography for this post is courtesy of Ruth Smith. You can view or buy her work here, follow her on Facebook or contact her at photobunny24@gmail.com.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

The Girls at the Kingfisher ClubTitle: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club
Author: Genevieve Valentine
Published: 3 June 2014
Publisher: Atria Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: historical fiction
Rating: 9/10

For years the twelve Hamilton sisters have been prisoners in their own home. They are the shameful evidence of their wealthy father’s inability to have a son, so he keeps them hidden from the world. No one except his staff knows how many daughters he has. He hasn’t even met some of them.

But although they never get to go out in the daylight, the sisters go out dancing in New York’s jazz clubs every night, from the Salon Renaud and the Swan, to the Kingfisher club they eventually call home. Jo, the eldest, the “General”, is the one in charge of every outing. She calls the cabs, watches over her sisters and decides when to leave. She’s the only one who speaks to their father, so she’s the one who has to break the news when he decides to marry them off, basically selling them to men of his choosing.

The girls might not know much about the daylight world, but they know a lot about men, and they know exactly what kind of men would marry a girl who’s been locked up in the house all her life – men like their father. As their leader, Jo needs to figure out a way to save her sisters, and for once it seems she can’t do it all by herself. She’ll have to turn to a bootlegger she met ten years ago for help. She’ll also have be extra careful to keep their dancing a secret, after a newspaper report about dancing girls and gin makes their father suspicious. Not only are their outings a defiance of his will, but their behaviour will spoil his plans “to sell them off one at a time as untouched goods who had never been so wild as to go out dancing”.

In case you haven’t realised it yet, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is based on the fairytale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. And was exactly what I wanted it to be – a relatively quick light read but with an in-depth psychological portrait of Jo and her sisters, and a close look at the whole idea of these trapped girls and women who escape into a vibrant world every night. It perfectly balances introspective character studies and the relationships between the sisters with the excitement of the dancing in jazz clubs and the tension of the threats posed by their father. It’s the kind of novel that makes me feel an intense and varied mixture of emotions, and I absolutely loved reading it.

I’m also glad that it eschewed the use of sexual violence. I kind of assumed that it would be an inevitable and discomforting part of the story, given that it’s about twelve beautiful girls and women who go dancing and drinking every night, but Valentine does not victimise them in this way. On the contrary, the Hamilton sisters are pretty street smart. They could drink most men under the table, and you don’t see them flopping around drunk and helpless. They learn how to read people and handle them, so they can spot trouble or soothe a tense situation. We don’t know the full extent of their sexual experiences (there are only references to little flings and heartbreaks) but whatever they do, you never get the sense that they’re not in control.

The girls’ strengths actually go a long way in making this a pleasant read. It could be really depressing, but the way the girls handle themselves, whether they’re having fun, being sold to men like property or alone and terrified, makes it satisfying rather than disturbing. You tense up and worry at the challenges they have to face, but every little triumph makes you smile.

This is particularly true with Jo, whose character we get to know in the greatest detail. Jo is in the incredibly difficult position of being the girls’ guardian. The blurb suggests that she’s the closest thing to a mother that they have, but the novel specifically says otherwise. It’s Ella with her kind, nurturing nature, who is more like the mother figure. Jo on the other hand is strict and commanding. Jo snaps her fingers and her sisters obey. She speaks to their father and enforces his commands. After a failed affair with a young bootlegger, Jo stopped dancing, deciding that it was too dangerous for her, no matter how much she wanted to. The result is that her sisters think she’s heartless. It’s even suggested that she’s just as much their jailer as their father is. Jo finds this deeply hurtful, especially since it’s already occurred to her.

As the reader however, you see how much Jo’s ‘heartlessness’ has done for her sisters. She describes her nickname “General” as ” the mortar that let her stand in both places at once and not fall”. She can only be the amazing sister they need by also being an authoritarian leader. It’s only because she’s so strict and careful that her sisters are able to go out every night and not get caught. She protects from their father, and it’s only when some of the girls actually have to be in Mr Hamilton’s presence as he starts trying to marry them off that they realise what a monster Jo has been fighting with on their behalf. She was the first one to learn to dance and start teaching her sisters. She initiated the first trip to a jazz club (imagine doing this when you almost never go outside), but everyone remembers it being Lou, the second eldest’s idea, because it’s hard to imagine Jo being so spontaneous.

You also see Jo trying too hard, sacrificing too much, wanting her sisters to need her because she’s become so wrapped up in her identity as the General. So part of the story involves her giving in to the things she wants, and being a sister rather than a General. It can be quite sad, but it makes for great reading. I also like the way Valentine wrote Mr Hamilton’s character. Again, she exercises restraint by not making him grossly monstrous. He’s quietly evil, with a very calm, polite manner that makes his cruelty stand out like an unexpected slap.

Overall, the book is also just beautifully written, and I highlighted many quotes on my Kindle. It’s one of the few that leaves me satisfied but also sad to leave behind because I’m not going to find another book like this any time soon. However, that does give me good reason to re-read it a few times 🙂

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

Six-Gun Snow WhiteTitle: Six-Gun Snow White
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Published: 28 February 2013
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Source: own copy
Genre: fantasy, fairytale, western
Rating: 9/10

This is as much my analysis of the story as it is a review, so it contains some spoilers, although I have not discussed the specifics of the ending.

I’ve never found the story of Snow White particularly compelling, but Catherynne M. Valente reinvents it in ways I could never have imagined. She takes the basic elements of the tale – the stepmother, the mirror, the huntsman, the heart, the seven dwarves – and reworks them into a story about racism, love, and mothers.

In North America’s Old West, a wealthy mine owner known to us as Mr. H sees a beautiful Crow woman named Gun That Sings and decides her wants to marry her.  Mr. H “had a witch’s own knack for sniffing out what the earth had to give up” (10), and Gun That Sings has the kind of beauty that seems to appeal to his business interests: “her hair had the very color of coal […] Her dark mouth as a cut garnet, her skin rich copper, her eyes black diamonds for true.” (10-11). Gun That Sings doesn’t want to marry this white man, but after a few not-so-subtle threats about the safety of her people, she relents. When she gets pregnant, Mr. H makes a wish:

let this child have hair like hot coal, and lips as bright and dark as blood, but oh Lord, if you’re listening, skin as white as mine. (15)

It doesn’t come true. Gun That Sings dies in childbirth, leaving behind a beautiful but clearly half-breed child. She lives in luxury in Mr. H’s beautiful castle by the sea, with a little zoo and her own dime museum. Mr. H gives her a silver gun with red pearls in the handle; she calls it Rose Red. But because of the colour of her skin her existence is kept secret.

Mr. H gets married again, to a woman so beautiful it hurts to look at her. When she sees the child she calls her Snow White as a mockery of the pale skin she will never have. Mrs. H proceeds to abuse Snow White for years, beating her and forcing her to do all the housework in their massive home.

In pre-Grimm versions of the fairytale, it was Snow White’s own mother rather than her stepmother who torments her. Valente conflates the two versions. Mrs. H is Snow White’s stepmother, but she’s the only mother the girl has ever known and she wants very desperately for Mrs. H to accept her. The very first thing Mrs. H says to her is “You are not entirely ugly, but no one would mistake you for a human being. That skin will never come clean” (37). She considers Snow White to be non-human because she’s not white, so the only way for Snow White to be accepted is to become white, or at least to become as much like Mrs. H as possible.

For a long time Snow White accepts Mrs. H’s violent abuse, believing that this is love and it’ll “fix” her.

Love was a magic fairy spell. Didn’t the girls in my books hunt after love like it was a deer with a white tail? Didn’t love wake the dead? Didn’t that lady love the beast so hard he turned into a good-looking white fellow? That was what love did. It turned you into something else.

For this reason I forgave Mrs. H. I tried to be near her all the time. She only meant to scrub me up and fix me. At any moment she might take me in her arms and kiss me and like that beast with a buffalo’s body I would fill up with light and be healed. Love would do what it did best. Love would turn me into a white girl. If I did everything right, one day I would wake up and be wise and strong, sure of everything, with skin like snow and eyes as blue as hers. It would happen like a birthday party. One day the girl in the mirror would not look like me at all, but like my stepmother, and nothing would hurt anymore forever. (44)

Under Mrs. H’s cruel ‘guidance’, Snow White bleeds and starves. She is scrubbed in baths of milk and ice. She is trussed up in corsets that suffocate and combs that hurt her. As a result, she gets some very twisted ideas of what it is to love, to be human, and to be a woman.

For myself I thought: this is how you make a human being. A human being is beautiful and sick. A human being glitters and starves. (43)

It’s a much more interesting dynamic than the petty beauty contest of the usual tale, with its stereotypes about female vanity. The mirror plays an important role in this story, but not because Mrs. H admires her face in it (it doesn’t actually show reflections at all). The question of beauty becomes a racial issue instead. Mrs. H is literally ‘fairer’ than Snow White, and since this makes her forever superior in racial terms, she never seems to see herself as being in competition with her stepdaughter. Other people talk about who is prettier, but Snow White is quick to dismiss the issue:

 I heard a lot of talk speculating on whether myself of Mrs. H was the more handsome. It’s plain foolishness.

Everybody knows no half-breed cowgirl can be as beautiful as a rich white lady. Where’s your head at? (65)

Later, Valente uses the fairytale’s iconic line as a dig at Snow White’s half-breed rootlessness. She won’t find a home in her mother’s Crow Nation because she’d “be the fairest of them all” (145) – just white enough that her presence would make trouble for them.

Unlike the fairytale though, there’s more to Mrs. H than simple evil. In the terrifying, ancient mirror that Mrs. H keeps in Snow White’s dime museum, Snow sees a young Mrs. H being abused in a similar way, and told that to be a woman means to “Work until you die” (50), to “Obey until a man give you permission to die,” (50) to “Make your black deals in the black wood and decide what you’ll trade for power” (51). It doesn’t all apply to this story; it’s more like Mrs. H come from a legacy of women who have suffered and found a way out of that suffering through cruelty and magic. Mrs. H tells Snow White that “Magic is just a word for what’s left to the powerless once everyone has eaten their fill” (63), and for a moment, I felt sorry for her.

In that scene, Valente also shows sudden similarities between Mrs. H and Snow White, suggesting that Snow White could take the same path. It’ll inevitably be a trap, a bad bargain, (“I am freedom and I will eat your heart” (51)), but perhaps Snow White could get what she wants.

She runs away instead. She steals a fantastic Appaloosa named Charming and heads out into the WIld West, turning into a character very different from the delicate girl of the fairytale. This Snow White is the fastest gunslinger in the West. She cheats at cards. She “Could teach the Scottish laird who dreamed up whiskey in his sheep pen to bolt it down and never flinch” (150). She gets work in one of her father’s mines, doing filthy, exhausting work in the darkness. The question of her prettiness was dismissed before, but now it becomes irrelevant as her trials turn her hard and vicious. Not that she cares – as far as she’s concerned her body has brought her nothing but trouble so who cares if it’s beaten and scarred? She’s used to that.

A bounty hunter comes looking for her heart, but not because her stepmother wants to eat it. There’s no beauty contest here, so the heart has a more practical but no less macabre function. And then rather than stumble across seven dwarves, Snow White ends up in the town of Oh-Be-Joyful, run by seven female fugitives who understand Snow White’s need to escape from her life.

But even in the form of this hardened gunslinger, Snow White is plagued by her fundamental childhood longings – she “wants a mother so bad it’s like a torn up body wanting blood” (144), even though, for her, “[a] mother’s like a poison made for only one soul” (149). It’s a horrible paradox, but it’s also why this story has such a strong impact.

At this point in the the standard fairytale, Snow White is unbelievably stupid or (more generously) unbelievably naive. Her stepmother tries to kill her three times with the same trick, and Snow White falls for it each time. I won’t tell you how Valente reewrites this part of the story, but I will say that it’s much more intellectually and emotionally involved, as well as being one of the hardest hitting aspects of the book.

The only difficulty I have is the ending. I just don’t know what to make of it. This is a very strange and emotionally complex book, so I read it twice (it’s short) but I still can’t figure that ending out. It even stranger than the rest of the book, and it changes the feel of the story from fantasy to something more like sci fi.

But other than that – wow. I’m so glad I got the signed limited-edition copy of this. And not just for the incredible reinvention of Snow White. As usual, Valente’s writing alone makes this book worth reading, as you may have guessed from the abundance of quotes I couldn’t resist using. I realise that fairytale retellings are getting a bit old now, but a book like this still stands out.

Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor – review part 1

Kabu KabuTitle: Kabu Kabu
Nnedi Okorafor
Published: 2 October 2013
Prime Books
short stories, fantasy, science fiction
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Note: I have split this review into two parts.

Kabu Kabu is American-Nigerian author Nnedi Okorafor’s first short story anthology. Drawing on her heritage and personal experience, she offers up an array of fantasy and science fiction based on the culture clashes of Nigerians visiting from America, Nigerian folklore and mythology, the power and vulnerability of women in traditional cultures, and the politics of a land being pillaged for oil by western corporations.

I’ve really come to appreciate short stories this past year, and this collection feels fresh and exciting, partly because African influences aren’t often seen in these genres, and partly because Okorafor has such a wonderful imagination. Traditional lifestyles are seamlessly melded with futuristic tech, politics finds its expression in fantasy, and Okorafor writes rural Nigeria with rich colours, tastes and depths, avoiding the dreary pessimism or stupid romanticism than you too often find in stories about African countries. Her stories are also full of intelligent, determined women breaking the stereotypes of tradition.

The collection opens, appropriately, with “The Magical Negro”, a parody of the magical Negro trope found in American cinema. In doing so, Okorafor brushes aside stereotypical portrayals of black Africans, making way for the people who populate her tales.

“Kabu Kabu” also serves as an introduction of sorts, and I can see why the collection is named after it. Okorafor and co-author Alan Dean Foster transport the reader from a familiar environment (Chicago – western, American) into a more fantastical one. Ngozi, a 30-something lawyer, is late for her flight to Nigeria, where she is going to celebrate her sister’s wedding. The taxi she takes to the airport is a kabu kabu – an illegal Nigerian taxi. “Heroin drop-offs, 419 scams, and all sorts of other Nigerian-oriented shady business flashed through her mind” and she can’t believe got stuck with a sexist, reckless Nigerian driver in an illegal cab before even getting to the airport. Her experience becomes even more outlandish when the driver starts picking up ‘masquerades’ – “mythical beings […] spirits and ancestors”. Not only is Ngozi in an awkward situation, she’s terrified by the creatures she encounters.

This is a good stepping stone for the stories that follow. At first I found them a tad disorienting, because the folklore and mythology are unfamiliar. It’s not because it’s Nigerian per se – African settings are not new to me – but folklore and mythology in general is pretty fucking weird and often it’s only your familiarity with it that allows you to forget that. So these stories could be alienating. In the horror story “On the Road” a supernatural event is preceded by the presence of numerous green and orange lizards. Then a woman has her hands amputated, before seeing a giant lizard made out of hot gravel rise from the road, with vines from the forest wrapping around it. And I had no bloody idea what the point was. Much like Ngozi can’t comprehend the creatures that get into the taxi with her.

But Ngozi eventually accepts the bizarre nature of the taxi, and one of the things I really like about this anthology is that the more you read, the better-acquainted you become with the culture, its mythology and politics. You might go in with many of the same stereotypes that flashed through Ngozi’s mind, but by the end you have a more nuanced understanding. For example, large green lizards make a brief appearance in one of the later stories as creatures from the spirit world. The lizards in “On the Road” suddenly make a bit more sense. A cute story called “Long Juju Man” a little girls tells us how everyone in the village knows about ghosts and how they love to eat rotten fruit. She runs into the legendary Long Juju Man – a sorcerer (“juju” is magic) who loved to play pranks, and died when he fell into a deep pit he’d dug for someone else. In “Bakasi Man”, I came across the line “Like my mother always says, ‘He who digs a pit for others will inevitably fall into it.'” It’s a simple phrase, but knowing the origin enriches the meaning.

“Bakasi Man” itself is about a hunchback, and apparently:

hunchbacks are not normal people. Even when they die, security has to be stationed at the gravesite for at least the first year, to prevent robbers from digging them up. It’s the hump that people want. A hunchback’s hump is said to be the source of his or her great power.

The story entwines folklore with politics, as a hunchbacked man rises to power by exploiting inter-tribal conflict. Okorafor is ambiguous about the hump – it is really the source of power, or is it powerful because people believe in it?

Tribal conflict comes up again in desperately bleak “The Black Stain”, a post-apocalyptic story about a family from a privileged tribe (the Uche) that loathes and enslaves another tribe (the Okeke). One interesting aspect of this story is that the Uche hate the Okeke because of their association with technology, which seems to have had a role in the unnamed apocalyptic event(s). Ironically, the Uche family make their money by selling scavenged computer parts. At first it seems like the story is very rural, very traditional (and very stereotypical), until you realise that it’s actually futuristic and society has passed through a technologically advanced stage only to be returned to a basic existence by unnamed post-apocalyptic events.

What makes the story so bleak is not just the grotesque racism or the setting, but what inspired it – the “Ewu” a monstrous child born of weaponised rape. Again, the story is ambiguous about the supernatural: it’s unclear whether monstrosity is ‘real’, or if it comes from the prejudice and oppression ingrained in those beliefs.

There are also four related stories about Windseekers – people who can fly and control the wind. They used to be a common sight in the skies, but in recent times people have ceased to believe in them and persecute them as witches.

The first of these stories is “How Inyang Got Her Wings” about a young woman who starts to fly when she hits puberty. Here we pick up the first few details of the Windseeker mythos – how Windseekers have ‘dada hair’ (dreadlocks), have a close connection with nature, and need to follow tradition by finding their soul mates if they wish to avoid disaster. “The Winds of Harmattan”, tells the story of Inyang’s aunt Asuquo, who was also a Windseeker. Like Inyang, she has a strong sexual appetite and men quickly become infatuated with her, but because she fails to marry the right man, she’s doomed.

Inyang appears decades later as a woman named Arro-yo (although I didn’t realise this until I read Okorafor’s notes at the end of the book) in the stories “Windseekers” and “Biafra”. “Windseekers” takes place in the lush science-fantasy-ish land of Ginen with its plant skyscrapers and organic tech. Inyang/Arro-yo has always resisted tradition and it’s in this story that we see the effects – the violent sexual tension between her and the man she should have married.

In “Biafra”, Arro-yo returns to Nigeria after travelling the world for many years, only to find it completely changed and in the middle of the Biafran War. Feeling guilty for selfishly staying away for so long, Arro-yo uses her powers as a Windseeker to alleviate as much suffering as she can, and this story has the most heart-wrenching scene in the anthology.

“Biafra” is one of the more brutal stories, but political issues come up often to drive the story or form its background. Another set of related stories deals with the the extraction of oil from Nigeria. One of these – Spider the Artist – was my absolute favourite from the anthology. A lonely unemployed woman is abused by her husband and as an escape, she sits in her backyard playing beautiful music on her father’s guitar. Sitting in her yard is dangerous though – oil pipelines run through it, and in the near-future world of this story, spider robots patrol the pipes against people who try to steal fuel, brutally slaughtering anyone who so much as touches them. The spider robots are known as Zombies, “the same name we call those “kill-and-go” soldiers who come in here harassing us every time something bites their brains.” What I loved about this tale was the relationship that forms between the narrator and a Zombie who comes to listen to her play music.

The events of “Spider the Artist” are rewritten in “The Popular Mechanic”. Here, the spider robots do not exist, but one of the main characters laments that the government has turned its people into “Robot zombies scrambling for a sip of fuel”, since locals can only get fuel illegally even though millions of litres are pumped out of the country every day. He becomes part robot himself, after he loses an arm in an explosion. His arm is replaced by a prototype mechanical arm that a western company is testing on Nigerians – a form of exploitation hiding behind the seeming benevolence of free advanced medical care.

The protagonist of “Icon” – an African-American journalist – portrays the oil issue from the other side of the fence:

The story was significant because the culprits were from the NDPM, the Niger Delta People’s Movement, a Nigerian terrorist organization bent on sabotaging and destroying any efforts Shell and other oil companies made to extract oil from this strip of the Niger Delta.

The journalist is not really invested in the issue though; he just wants a story like Shell wants Nigeria’s oil.

What I also wanted to discuss was the culture that is depicted in Kabu Kabu, random observations and my overall thoughts about the collection, but that made the review too long for one post. I’ll post the rest in a day or two 🙂

Rapture by Kameron Hurley

Rapture by Kameron HurleyTitle: Rapture
Series: Bel Dame Apocrypha
Kameron Hurley
Night Shade Books
1 November 2012
science fiction
 eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

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.