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

Advertisements

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

Up for Review: God’s War

I’m going to let this one speak for itself. Check out these amazing opening paragraphs:

Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.
Drunk, but no longer bleeding, she pushed into a smoky cantina just after dark and ordered a pinch of morphine and a whiskey chaser. She bet all of her money on a boxer named Jaks, and lost it two rounds later when Jaks hit the floor like an antique harem girl.
Nyx lost every coin, a wad of opium, and the wine she’d gotten from the butchers as a bonus for her womb. But she did get Jaks into bed and – loser or not – in the desert after dark that was something.
“What are you after?” Jaks murmured in her good ear.
They lay tangled in the sheets like old lovers: a losing boxer with a poor right hook and a tendency to drop her left, and a wombless hunter bereft of money, weapons, and most of her clothing.
“I’m looking for my sister,” Nyx said. It was partly the truth. She was looking for something else too, something worth a lot more, and Jaks was going to help her get it.
The midnight call to prayer rolled out over the desert. It started somewhere out in Faleen and moved in a slow wave from mosque muezzin to village mullah to town crier, certain as a swarm of locusts, ubiquitous as the name of God.
“Don’t tell anyone,” Nyx said, “what I’m about to tell you.”

I can’t resist a book that starts like that. In that short piece of damn good writing, author Kameron Hurley tells us so much about Nyx and the world God’s War is set in, while working in a good deal of intrigue. It’s just so slick. 

The blurb has a broader scope but is less revealing:

Some days, Nyx was a Bel Dame – an honored, respected, and deadly government-funded assassin – other days, she was a butcher and a hunter; a woman with nothing to lose. Now the butcher has a bounty to bring in. Nyx and her rag-tag group of mercenaries is about to take up a contract that will shake the foundations of two warring governments… (from NetGalley)

 

I feel I should tell you a bit more. God’s War is set on Umayma, a hot, hostile planet in an isolated area of the universe. Umayma was colonised by Islamic families many centuries before. Religious differences eventually led to conflict, and for two hundred years the two main nations on the planet have been engaged in a brutal war. With a detailed depiction of a pair of post-Earth societies with wildly different interpretations of Islam, Hurley has created what has so far been an excellent and unique piece of science fiction. I’m about halfway through the novel and hope to have a review for you by Thursday or at least next week Tuesday.

God’s War is the first novel in the Bel Dame Apocrypha series, published by Night Shade Books on 18 January 2011. The sequel, Infidelwas published on 1 October 2011. The third book in the series, entitled Rapture is due to be published on 6 November this year. To learn more about the author, check out her website, where she has some interesting articles on books, writing and gender. She also has links to some short fiction that you can read for free. From what I’ve read of God’s War, I think you should definitely go and check that out NOW.

Review of Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Title: Alif the Unseen
Author: G. Willow Wilson
Published: 03 July 2012
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic
Genre: science fiction, fantasy, mythology
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

Alif is a 23-year old “computer geek with girl issues”. He’s a highly talented hacker living in an unnamed state in the Persian Gulf. He makes money by protecting dissenters from state online security in similarly oppressive countries. He doesn’t care what their ideologies are – his clients in include Islamists, feminists, communists, pornographers, human rights’ activists – he cares only about their right to freedom of expression. And he’s exceptionally good at what he does.

Then his girlfriend Intisar breaks up with him. She’s an Arab aristocrat who’s basically been slumming it with Alif, who is only half Arab and has no wealth to speak of. Although Alif ‘married’ her using an online marriage contract for Gulf men looking for sex without the sinful extra-marital aspect, this means nothing now that Intisar’s father has arranged a marriage for her. “Make it so I never see your name again” she tells Alif tearfully. Angry and hurt, Alif takes her request seriously and writes Tin Sari, a computer programme that can identify an individual ‘personality’ through their typing speed, language use, style of writing, etc. With Tin Sari he can prevent Intisar from seeing any of his online activity, no matter what computer or email address she uses. Somehow, Tin Sari works far better than Alif thought possible – it’s a computer programme with ‘intuition’, able to recognise Intisar (and by extension, anyone else) using a single sentence.

Unfortunately, Intisar’s fiancé turns out to be the Hand of God – the feared and ruthless head of state security. When the Hand finds Tin Sari and Alif through Intisar’s computer, Alif is forced to go on the run along with his neighbour Dina, with whom he’s been friends since they were five years old. For some reason Intisar sends Alif a copy of the Alf Yeom wa YeomThe Thousand and One Days. The Alf Yeom is rumoured to be the djinn’s version of The Thousand and One Nights. As Alif runs from the state authorities and tries to figure out the importance of the Alf Yeo,m he finds himself entangled with the djinn he never really believed in and exploring an unseen world he never knew existed.

Alif the Unseen is an unusual blend of Middle Eastern mythology, Islam and science fiction, albeit just a dash of the latter. According to the Quran, the djinn (spelt “jinn” in the novel) are part of God’s creation, but contemporary Islamic belief treats them as fantasy, as Intisar describes  in her thesis on ancient Islamic literature:

The Quran speaks of the hidden people in the most candid way, yet more and more the educated faithful will not admit to believing in them, however readily they might accept even the harshest and most obscure points of Islamic law. That God has ordained a thief must pay for his crime with his hand, that a woman must inherit half of what a man inherits—these things are treated not only as facts, but as obvious facts, whereas the existence of conscious beings we cannot see—and all the fantastic and wondrous things which their existence suggests and makes possible—produces profound discomfort among precisely that cohort of Muslims most lauded for their role in that religious ‘renaissance’ presently expected by western observers: young degree-holding traditionalists. Yet how hollow rings a tradition in which the law, which is subject to interpretation, is held as sacrosanct, yet the word of God is not to be trusted when it comes to His description of what He has created.

In Alif the Unseen, Wilson gives the Quran’s teachings about the djinn more weight and brings them and their hidden world to life with an array of strange creatures (including the genie from Aladdin’s lamp!). My favourite character was Vikram the Vampire, who is not so much a vampire as some kind of werewolf or shapeshifter. Vikram is crude, insulting and very dangerous, but also noble and extremely useful to Alif in his dilemma. He’s very quick to point out Alif’s flaws though, frequently stating how weak, cowardly or close-minded Alif is. Which is true actually – Alif is powerful only when he’s using a computer. In real life he shows signs of having spent too much time alone in his room and even though he reads a lot of fantasy novels he has a tough time accepting the existence of the djinn. He’s Alif the Unseen because almost anything meaningful in his life happens online. He doesn’t even use his real name, and goes only by the handle ‘Alif’ (the first letter of the Arabic alphabet):

He had spent so much time cloaked behind his screen name, a mere letter of the alphabet, that he no longer thought of himself as anything but an alif; a straight line, a wall. His given name fell flat in his ears now. The act of concealment had become more powerful than what it concealed.

Oddly enough, Alif seems even more hidden than his friend Dina, a devout Muslim who chose to wear the veil even though her parents disapproved, and it made life difficult for her at school. I have to say, I was surprised at how much I liked Dina. She was my second favourite character, after Vikram. Dina is surprisingly bold for the kind of person who actually chooses to wear the burqa and who chastises other women for laughing in public. Although she sticks to extremely strict Islamic rules of propriety whenever she can, she tends to be braver and more steady-minded than Alif. While he’s shaking with fear, she has the fortitude to stay calm and think clearly. I didn’t agree with Dina’s principles, but I certainly admired the strength of her character.

In the classic girl-next-door tradition, there’s a touch of romance between Alif and Dina, but it’s nothing like you’d get in a novel with a more westernised or liberal setting. Things that most of us would consider to be part of daily, casual interactions between men and women take on deeply intimate, even erotic meaning here. As in other Islamic countries, women are expected to cover their faces in public, so for a woman to reveal her face to a man is a deeply personal, sexual thing. In one instance in the novel it even means that a woman will accept no other husband than the one man to whom she showed her face. When Intisar first removed her veil for Alif, he found to be such a deeply moving experience that “it took him three nights to work up the courage to uncover more than her face”.

There’s constant sexual tension between Alif and Dina simply because going on the run together forces them to cross their society’s strict sexual boundaries. They are often alone together, they have to sleep in the same room (a curtain is always put up so Dina can be hidden from view), or they accidently brush up against each other. Their excessive modesty actually lends itself to an intense yet restrained eroticism, while their lack of experience gives the novel a YA feel.

If I’ve given the impression that this is religious fiction, then don’t worry, it’s not. Some characters can get a little preachy, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that the author is an American who converted to Islam (one of the characters is also an American convert, who I imagine portrays the author’s experience in an Islamic country). The novel isn’t critical of religion, of course, but it’s not trying to push Islamic ideology either; Islam is just a necessary part of any story set in this context, and it also provides a means of working the djinn into the plot.

On the downside, I didn’t like the book quite as much as I liked the idea of it. Being a book geek rather than a computer geek, I found all Alif’s coding and programming stuff to be confusing, so I couldn’t quite appreciate what he was doing or the ways in which the author intertwined mythology and technology. In addition to that (or because of it) the novel just left me a bit cold. I can’t put my finger on why, but I just didn’t love it. Nevertheless, I think it’s a cool experiment in sf, and if you have more computer geek credits than I do, you might get a lot more out of it.

Buy Alif the Unseen at The Book Depository

Review of Kingdom of Strangers by Zoë Ferraris

Title: Kingdom of Strangers
Series: Nayir al-Sharqi #3
Author: Zoë Ferraris
Published: 05 June 2012
Publisher: Little, Brown
Genre: crime and mystery
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

The bodies of nineteen women are discovered buried out in the Saudi Arabian desert, all with their hands cut off. The oldest has been there for a decade, and the police are shocked by the fact a serial killer has been operating, completely undetected, for so long. Inspector Ibrahim Zahrani is put in charge of the case, but he soon finds himself distracted by another serious issue – his mistress Sabria has gone missing.

Unfortunately he can’t simply report her disappearance. By doing so he would reveal his relationship to her, and adultery is punishable by public beheading in Saudi. The police wouldn’t bother trying to find Sabria if they knew about the affair either, since no one cares about prostitutes. So Zahrani asks Katya Hijazi, one of the few female officers, to help him investigate Sabria’s disappearance.

This is a great risk for Katya. Helping an adulterer and even spending time alone with a man is a breach of propriety that could disgrace her, or even get her fired. But she is an ambitious woman, and by helping Zahrani she hopes to play a role in the serial killer case as well.

Kingdom of Strangers is the third in a series of mystery novels set in Saudi Arabia, but it reads very well as a stand-alone. I thought it was great, although not because of the two mysteries contained in the plot. These are good, but not as brilliant as some. The real drawcard is the myriad ways in which the extreme social restrictions of Saudi society affect police investigations, as well as people’s personal and professional lives. It’s a place where modern conveniences are juxtaposed with archaic practices. Forensic science and torture are both normal aspects of criminal investigations. Crimes like murder and adultery are punished by public beheading while thieves have their hands cut off. A sword is usually used. However, when a woman is executed, “you don’t cut off her head. You shoot her in the back of the head.[…] If they chopped off the head, it might roll and the burqa might come off, and you would see her face. So they shoot her instead. They sometimes give her the choice.”

Hiding a woman’s face, even in death, is one of the many, many religious restrictions that suffuse Saudi society. Virtue policies prevent men and women from interacting unless absolutely necessary, so many places, such as restaurants, workplaces and even homes, are divided into separate areas for men and women. There are even women-only malls. This an important issue in the serial-killer case – normally a killer could meet women in bars, restaurants or other public places, but in Saudi there’s no legitimate way for a man to meet a woman in public. This is perhaps why all the killer’s victims are immigrants. Their lives are different from a normal Saudi woman’s, and Saudi Arabia is full of them:

Saudi had let itself become a kingdom of strangers. It welcomed its immigrants because they lent the illusion that all Saudis could afford hired help, because the immigrants did the jobs that most Saudis would never dream of doing — housekeeping, trash collecting, taxi driving — and because without them, absolutely nothing would get done.

The authorities cannot keep track of all the immigrants, many of whom are women lured into the country on false pretences, only to end up forced into lives of indentured servitude, frequently abused by their employers. Runaways and disappearances are common, and few take notice or care about the missing women.

On the whole, being a woman in Saudi Arabia is the definition of impractical. You can hardly do anything or go anywhere without the permission or help of a man. Being a female police officer is just as bad, and Katya’s character relates this experience. She works in forensics, but wants to play a more active role in police work. It’s difficult to imagine how she could accomplish this though.

Women are not allowed to drive, so Katya couldn’t get go out to investigate much without a man to accompany her. She can’t even get to work unless her younger cousin drives her. She can’t interview men without a chaperone, because they mind find it improper to talk to a woman. As it is, her job involves a lot of minor interactions with men, and she’s worried that this will upset her fiancé and he will force her to quit.

Interaction with men puts her job at risk in other ways too. When Zahrani first talks to Katya about Sabria’s disappearance, he doesn’t want to risk being overheard so he ushers her into the women’s bathroom and locks the door. Throughout their conversation, Katya is distracted by worry – if she’s caught alone in the bathroom with this man, she could be fired on the spot. She has the same concerns when alone in a car with Zahrani – what will happen if her fiancé or her father hears about this? She’s 29 years old, but sometimes she’s as disempowered as a young child, if not more so.

This is far more than just a personal problem for women though – social restrictions deeply affect police work too. “We do not touch women” the chief medical examiner tells Zahrani, explaining why there’s only one woman working on all of the 19 bodies that were discovered in the desert. It doesn’t matter that they might be able to stop the killer sooner if they can get information from his victims faster – virtue comes first. In normal investigations the police will show people photos of victims or suspects and ask if they recognise them, but showing people photos of women in Saudi is sometimes pointless, because many of them cover their faces in public. As Katya realises, it’s sometimes better to have a full-body shot in a burkha, because the woman might only be recognisable as a black shape, not as a face (this seems unlikely, but Zahrani speaks about how, as a child, he was terrified of losing his mother in the market, and he had to learn to recognise her shape and walk). Some people even have problems with photographing victims at crime scenes – it’s considered immoral to expose certain parts of the body (for women this includes everything except the hands and feet), and in strict versions of Islam it’s forbidden to take photos at all.

Even when Katya proves helpful in the serial killer investigation, most men in the department disapprove of her involvement regardless of her insights. They find it inappropriate for her to come into the men’s section of the building. Even though she does forensic analyses, the men will not tell her what significance they have for the case. Female employees are nevertheless necessary in the department. They can interview other women, go to places like women-only malls, and examine female corpses.

Men don’t necessarily have an easy time of it though. Zahrani is not very religious and he’s annoyed by many virtue policies, especially now that Sabria is missing. We see a bit of his family life and with it a glimpse of marital and sexual relations in the Saudi context. Katya’s fiancé Nayir (after whom the series is named, since he features in the previous two novels as well) worries about how a married man is, in some ways, his wife’s servant. He has to drive her around, wait for her while he shops, and perform all the tasks that she is not allowed to.

It’s a strange, almost surreal society. With all the concerns about purity and virtue, Saudi society is oddly perverse because people see and look for sex everywhere – a woman’s exposed hair, eye contact, casual conversation, etc. At one point a colleague mentions – as a criticism – that Zahrani was seen leaving the station with Katya; it was so bizarre that something as innocuous as leaving a building with a female colleague could get a man into trouble at work.

There are so many things in this novel that you could speak about with disbelief, and yet Zoë Ferraris tells this story with a kind of calm, matter-of-fact style that makes it utterly realistic but still very readable because doesn’t constantly make me want to scream in frustration (as news about the treatment of women in the Middle East usually does). The treatment of women in Saudi society is of course critiqued in the novel, but it doesn’t read like raucous polemic; rather a frank but fair portrayal of a society that few people could speak of in any positive way. This is life, in one of its many forms, albeit an obscene one.

On the whole I see Kingdom of Strangers not so much as a mystery novel but as a detailed portrait of Saudi society with two mysteries as the base on which the story is built. That said, I’d still recommend it to crime fiction readers because it gives such an interesting perspective on police investigation, it’s well written, has strong characters and an entertaining plot. I really appreciated it for its view on such a closed society too. Ferraris spent some time living in Saudi with her then-husband and his family, and although I imagine it must have been a very difficult experience at times, she’s certainly gained something valuable to offer readers.

 

Buy Kingdom of Strangers at The Book Depository

Nekropolis by Maureen F. McHugh

Title: Nekropolis
Author: Maureen F. McHugh
Publisher: Eos
Publication date: 21 August 2001
My Rating: 6/10

Nekropolis is an unusal sci fi novel. The setting is 22nd century Morocco, but the culture is that of a timeless Islamic state. Aside from a few technological advances, the society of Maureen F. Mchugh’s novel is little different from the Islamic states of the past and present – it’s theocratic, harbours deep sexual divisions, inequality and repression, and shuns the western world, from which it has remained largely isolated.

Various forms of slavery are still permitted, as in the case of the protagonist Hariba, a young woman who feels she has no chance of getting married and thus makes the decision to get herself “jessed” – implanted with biotechnology that makes her loyal to her master. Although the practice is illegal in many societies, here it is validated by a verse in the Koran. Hariba gets paid for her work as a servant, but she is also owned by her master, and running away has potentially fatal consequences, as her body will revolt against the disloyalty.

Which is exactly what happens when Hariba falls in love with one of society’s other slaves – a harni named Akhmim. Harnis are artifical human beings, designed to serve human needs, available to be bought and sold, discriminated against for not being truly human even though, physically, there’s no difference. Because he’s not considered human and therefore isn’t considered truly male either, Akhmim is allowed access to the women’s quarters of the wealthy household in which Hariba works, and the shy, conservative servant girl slowly grows attached to the warm, gentle harni. But when they decide to run away together it becomes painfully clear that love is not enough to overcome the social, personal and biological boundaries existing between them.

The story is told by four different narrators – Hariba, Akhmim, Hariba’s mother and Hariba’s best friend Ayesha. Each of them offer distinct, compelling perspectives on the story, the society it’s set in and each other.  Together they bring a variety of themes to the novel – love, gender, motherhood, friendship – and while the narrative is slow and melancholy it is also a rich, living, breathing tale. As you might have guessed, there isn’t much focus on the science-fictional aspects of the story – technologies like jessing and harnis; the transition from present to future. These things exist in the background, providing the structure for the story and most importantly, the characters.

Nevertheless, as the most sci-fi-ish character in the story, I found Akhmim’s perspective to be the most interesting. He gives us a glimpse of life as a harni. It’s a tragic existence – harni like Akhmim are designed with a dependence on physical contact with other harni, but because they are used as slaves they’re usually forced to live separately. Even the comforts of human contact are unavailable to him, because he lives in a society where men and women are separated, where it’s inappropriate to even hug a woman in public let alone in private, and homosexual behaviour is obviously outlawed. In a sense, it’s impossible for Akhmim to be happy in any way that’s considered legal or even socially acceptable and thus it’s inevitable that he comes to live outside of Morocco’s legal boundaries.

Akhmim  is also designed to put the needs of humans before his own – a fact that’s constantly hovering over his relationship with Hariba. Does he truly love her and care for her, or is it just his biology? Despite being artifical though, Akhmim is the most open-minded, loving character and thus easily became my favourite.

Hariba, her mother, and Ayesha are complex, multifaceted characters, but easier to dislike in their conservatism. It hurts to see the open, friendly Akhmim ignored or berated when he tries to speak to Ayesha or Hariba in public, and Hariba’s mother’s ethical debates with herself regarding the son and daughter who have broken the laws of God and society seem so devoid of love and compassion at times that I wanted to scream at her. But don’t let this put you off; I think McHugh does an elegant job of crafting characters in a society such as this. It’s easier to put rebellious characters in an oppressive society and let them voice the criticisms that most readers would be ready to utter themselves. The beauty of Nekropolis is its ability to make you empathise with characters that frustrate and anger you, the ones who can’t or won’t do what you want them to.

To the novel’s credit, it isn’t as loudly critical of Islamic society as one might expect in a novel by an American author. Religion and culture exist largely in the background of the story in the same way that the futuristic technology does, providing context rather than content. Of course, the characters do struggle with the laws and conventions of society – all them violate the law in some way, for love, family, friendship, happiness while social and religious conventions create constant difficulties for them.  But for the most part the characters accept their society as is and their revolts are more personal than political. No one gets up on a soapbox to give a speech about oppression or religion. No one needs to, because the actions of the characters and the events of the novel speak for themselves.

On the other hand, one the reasons I only gave this book a 6/10 is the portrayal of Western society If McHugh seemed relatively subtle when we’re in Morocco, the tables are turned when it’s compared with a western society. Akhmim and Hariba escape to Spain in what is now known as the ECU, and it is a essentially a social utopia that admits to none of the problems of the western world while making Morocco look like a backward little dump shunning the beautiful light of the modern world. Had McHugh employed a more balanced view, I would have awarded this novel an extra star.

Nekropolis also lost a star for a more subjective reason – it wasn’t the greatest read. I’m by no means averse to slow, contemplative novels, but the best of those leave me in pensive awe, while this evokes something more like a shrug of mild admiration. I wasn’t bored, but anything more than 6 stars feels unfair.

Nevertheless, it’s unusual to find a sci fi novel set in a non-western society such as this, and that alone is reason to check Nekropolis out, in my opinion. As a fan of sci fi, I am often more interested in the way technology affects characters and societies than I am in the technology itself, and Nekropolis certainly caters to that. Those who like their sf on the harder side probably won’t enjoy it, but for those who prefer cross-genre fiction or who seldom read sci fi but enjoy historical or travel fiction, Nekropolis could be a valuable read.

Can the burqa ban promote gender equality?

Yesterday the French parliament voted on and approved a contentious bill banning citizens from covering their faces in public. That’s the official description, but around the world it’s become known as “the burqa ban” as if effectively targets the minority of French Muslim women who veil their faces when in public. It’s another bold step in a secular movement that saw the banning of headscarves and other religious symbols in French schools. If the bill is passed by Senate in September, it will become law, making it illegal for Muslim women to wear burqas.

 A variety of reasons have been cited for the ban: security purposes, the improved integration of immigrants into French society, gender equality, the preservation of French secular values. Those who object to the ban argue that it will further stigmatize and marginalise Muslim minorities and that it violates women’s rights to personal freedom and freedom of expression. Legal authorities have pointed out that the ban may be unconstitutional.

My concern regarding this issue is a predominantly feminist one: is an official ban on the burqa an effective means of promoting gender equality? Or is it a form of discrimination in itself, exacerbating the prejudice against Muslims and Islamic culture as well as violating women’s rights to individual choice and freedom of expression?

 If the burqa were merely a personal fashion preference – whatever the wearer’s reasons behind it – I would argue that a ban is ludicrous and unconstitutional. Governments should not be able to tell people what to wear, except perhaps in terms of certain (debatable) standards of common decency. A reasonable exception in terms of face coverings would be in places where security requires that the face be revealed, such as in banks, airports, and casinos.

However, the burqa is not just a sartorial option. It embodies the ideology of hijab which views female sexuality and the female body as corrupting and therefore dangerous. Women must therefore be covered in public to protect themselves, men, and society as a whole from the morally degrading influence of their bodies.

Coincidentally, I recently read Women and Islam (also known as The Veil and the Male Elite) by Fatima Mernissi. She provides a historical analysis of hijab and the status of women in Islam, pointing out that Muhammad believed very strongly in sexual equality and his behaviour reflected this. His wives were active in political and religious life, and he often turned to them for guidance. Muhammad also had an open attitude to sexuality and sexual practice (within marriage anyway). Mernissi often notes the fact that Muhammad’s wife ‘A’isha had quarters leading directly off from the mosque, and Muhammad often went straight from her bedroom to his prayers.

Unfortunately, most of Muhammad’s Companions did not share his egalitarian attitude and did not want to follow his example in the way they treated their wives. They had come from misogynist cultures, and while they accepted most of Islamic doctrine, they objected to its interference in their relationships with women, especially such things as a woman’s right to inherit. In pre-Islamic Arab cultures, women were often treated as objects and constituted part of a man’s wealth. Because Islam treated women as individuals and gave them the right to inherit, the new religion robbed male Arabs of a large portion of their wealth and thus their power. It’s not hard to understand why they objected strongly to women’s rights, and consequently, how the hijab achieved such power within Islamic societies.

Mernissi analyses the famous hijab verse in the Qur’an, stating that it was not an injunction on women to cover up, but rather about creating privacy for Muhammad and his wives. The verse was recited at a time when Medina was on the brink of civil war and in addition many people had questions about the new religion. As God’s messenger, Muhammad was constantly harassed by the public, even in his home, hence the need for some privacy.

The demand that women cover themselves was made in a similar social context. The city was very unstable, trying to cope with conversion to a new religion that promised a better life but had also brought the threat of war to the city gate. Women were being harassed in the streets, sometimes as part of a political campaign against Muhammad. The men who harassed women claimed that they thought they were slaves. Muhammad’s Companions suggested the women cover themselves as a sign of status for the sake of protection. Muhammad was opposed to this, as it contradicted both sexual and social equality. Unfortunately though, he was getting old, he had serious social problems on his hands, so he gave in to his Companions.

Mernissi argues that this was the downfall of women’s rights in Islamic society. The hijab actually legitimates the sexual harassment of women, because it becomes a woman’s responsibility to cover up, not a man’s responsibility to treat women with respect. The unveiled woman becomes a legitimate target for sexual harassment and abuse. In addition, the pre-Islamic, pagan fears of female sexuality as corrupting or polluting survived and dominated the religion’s more egalitarian ideas. The hijab also legitimates the abuse of slaves, which again is a pre-Islamic, unegalitarian belief. Ironically, Mernissi says, the veiled woman has become the symbol of Islam, and yet hijab represents the failure of Islam to overcome pagan beliefs or instill social equality.

Mernissi’s book was a very informative perspective on hijab, but even with this in mind the question of the burqa ban is difficult to answer. There are women who want to wear burqas and whatever their beliefs, I believe in individual choice and I won’t say flat out that they should not be allowed to wear them.

I think what’s more important is that hijab ceases to be a moral requirement or obligation for women in Islam. My conviction is that hijab is a tool of sexual discrimination that itself is veiled in excuses about protecting women and preserving their purity. I have heard many Muslims, male and female, argue that the scarf and the veil protect women from the gaze of men who see them as sexual objects. However, that very idea of the protective veil implies that a woman IS a sexual object. They need to cover themselves because their bodies can ONLY be interpreted in sexual terms. In addition the idea of a protective veil implies that men have so little control over their sexual impulses that the sight of a woman’s hair, or the definition of her figure in fitted clothing drives them into a sexual frenzy. Any crime they then commit against unveiled women could be excused by a lack of control over their actions – a case of temporary insanity caused by the victim herself.

This is a problem that exists within Islam and Islamic society and it should be addressed as such. What is needed is a reform in the way Islam views female bodies and female sexuality. I doubt that a legal ban on the burqa could achieve this. Whether it is appropriate or not, the burqa is considered a symbol of Islam. Banning it will no doubt be interpreted as an attack on Muslims and their religion, and an issue that should be about women’s rights could easily be overshadowed by a debate on religious tolerance. This is not to say that the ban is simply wrong. It’s a criticism of what many see as an oppressive religious practice, and no religion should be protected from legitimate critique. Lets just hope that this particular critique marks the beginning of reform in Islam rather than reinforcing the “us vs. them” mentality that many already adopt.