They say “the third time’s the charm”. I can’t speak as to the verity of that statement, but it took me three tries before I was finally able to make my way through Kameron Hurley’s dark speculative fiction novel God’s War, and there was absolutely nothing charming about it. It is a harsh book, one full of blood and dirt and betrayal, and lacking all but the barest modicum of grace. But by the time I had finished, I was left amazed and dumbfounded with how gripping it was, how deftly it was written, and how deeply it had affected me.
Nyxnissa so Dasheem is a bel dame, a powerful sect of female assassins for hire. But she’s never been one for following the rules, and she’s made some pretty powerful enemies since being blown apart while clearing out mines in one of the land’s imitable holy wars and reconstructed by one of the sovereign magicians of Nasheen. Nyx’s last escapade, which included her selling body parts to gene pirates, has finally pushed her over the line with the Council, and she is turned out of the order to survive in any way she can as one of the brutal bounty hunters who will kill anyone for the right price. But if Nyx is anything, she’s a survivor. Ruthless, godless, and without honor, she cares for little and trusts no one.
But it’s not like life is easy for anyone on Nyx’s world. Hot, arid, and stingy, the only thing the land seems to produce are bugs. Beetles, wasps, locusts – they skitter underfoot, hiss from the shadows, swarm to drippings of water, sweat or blood. Bugs are the source of fuel, of food, of currency. Magicians control them, mechanics use them, and weapons are infused with their poison. Glow worms in jars provide lights, blood worms invest slow drilling tortures, wasps provide security, bug slurry in gravy restores a modicum of health to those who have courted death.
It also is a world of religious fanaticism, where adherence to God and ritual is both rigid and opportunistic. Religion determines whom one can love, what roles are played in society, how one dresses, what happens to those who are different or outcast. And the rules are different dependent on borders. Beset by years of religious conflict, most people live in squalor and fear.
And there is war. Bitter, all consuming, vicious war. Most males are drafted to the front where they seldom return except in body bags; those who do return are scarred and bitter. The women who fill the void are just as callous and mercenary as the men they have replaced. Everyone struggles to survive.
Into this miasma of struggle and distrust enters outworlders who claim to be able to end the war in return for information and cooperation. This galvanizes all the power players into a mad scramble to underplay each other in order to gain the upper hand, either through obtaining their own advantages or by disadvantaging their rivals to a paralyzing degree. Nyx finds herself taunted by the promise of riches and restatement, threatened by enemies and those who used to be friends, tricked, beaten, betrayed and used as a pawn, always trying to stay one step ahead of the competition – and occasionally succeeding. Occasionally not.
God’s War is a searingly brutal book, frightening to embrace. There are few redeeming characters in this book – Nyx included – and death comes without sentiment or justification, making it a difficult read. But I’m glad I stayed with it, because it became an experience like no other. The deeper I read into God’s War, the more I realized that as gritty and bloody and cruel as it was, it felt real, and that’s a rare gift for a reader. I never really had the chance to “relax” in this book, but even as unnerving as it was, it was a very compelling read. I’m glad that I kept at it – even if it did take three tries to come to that realization.