Having heard more than a few intriguing things about it and seen it on this year's Nebula shortlist, I decided to make time to read Kameron Hurley's God's War. And despite some flaws in the pacing, I'm glad I did: it combines a kick-ass action plot with some quality world building and plays interesting games with religion and gender stereotypes.
The book opens with a prologue set ten years before the bulk the action that introduces most of the main characters and their world. Nyx, our hero is a bel dame, an assassin sponsored by the Nasheen government, with a sideline in gene piracy that's about to get her drummed out of the order and clapped in clink for a year. Our other hero Rhys has fled his native Chenja for Nasheen — no mean feat, given the two countries have been at war for generation — where his limited skills as a bio-wizard have won him protection at one of the wizards' gyms.
On the trail of a deserter infected with a deadly plague, Nyx misjudges one of her local contacts and ends up being pursued by her former mentor and current enemy, Raine. Trading on her bel dame credentials, Nyx crashes a fight at the wizards' gym where it just so happens that her target's sister is fighting. It also just so happens to be the gym where Rhys is working and where a visiting alien — in this context a human from somewhere other than Umayma — has decided to acquaint herself with the barbaric mysteries of violence. Despite getting the girl, and through the girl decapitating her brother, Nyx's victory cuts no ice with her bel dame sisters and she finds herself summarily imprisoned.
Fast forward to the present and Nyx, a decade older and wiser, has teamed up with Rhys and a couple of Raine's former squaddies to form her own team of bounty hunters. During a routine corpse drop-off, Nyx finds herself summoned to the palace and assigned a sensitive mission: during a return visit, one of the aliens — Nikodem, the one who came to watch the fight — has been kidnapped. And since the alien has information that could lead to a decisive end to the endless Nasheen-Chenjan war, whoever holds her — the Chenjans, the Queen, the bel dames — will hold the balance of power.
What makes God's War interesting, beyond its page turning plot and wise-cracking hero(ine) is the way that it plays with the reader's preconceptions. Both Nasheen and Chenjan cultures are clearly influenced by Islam, with suitable modifications for a 27 hour day, both adhere to the same religious text written in a language, like Latin, now unfamiliar and incomprehensible to the majority of the population, and both have been at war for generations. But their reactions to the war, which has cut through their male populations like a scythe, are very different: Nasheen has become a matriarchy, with women in all positions of power and men all but invisible; whereas Chenja has adopted a rigid patriarchal model where extreme polygamy is the norm and the only men exempt from being drafted to the front are the heads of the households and their (male) heirs. Consequently Nyx's attitude to life is very much that of a traditional hard-arse male hero, whereas Rhys finds himself cast in the role of the heroine. For example, while crossing the security cordon that protects the capital city, it is Rhys who is objectified and demeaned by the border guards and it is only Nyx's intervention, her clear ownership of Rhys and her camaraderie with the guards, that sees him through.
Although the other major state states that make up Umayma go unseen, it's clear they originally shared similar religious principles even if they have diverged over time. This isn't terribly surprising: during her first encounter with the aliens, Nyx mentions that settlement was originally limited to the "people of the Book" — presumably various different forms of Islam. Intriguingly the aliens are keen to present themselves as people of the Book, even though they admit that their Book isn't exactly the same and, from their behaviour, it becomes obvious to the reader, but to the Nasheen, that the aliens are Christian:
We are people of the Good Book, but our book is... different from yours. I must admit, even among followers of your book... what is it you call it here, the Kitab? Even among followers of your Kitab on other worlds, your interpretation is... exceedingly unique. Yours is the first post-Haj world too—
At which point the ever impatient Nyx cuts her off! But it doesn't matter. The aliens aren't on Umayma to discuss doctrine: they're interested in the local bio-technology — almost entirely based on insect life — and the abilities of some members of the population to change into animals.
The technology and technical wizardry of the world is another of the book's enjoyable features. People are patched up by bug-wielding wizards, places are lit by glow-worms, and bakkies — pickups — are powered by cisterns full of beetles and leak cockroaches rather than coolant when they're broken or mis-tuned. Organs can be removed and replaced with almost no effort, bodies can be rebuilt, and soldiers can wander round with half their heads missing and, who knows, if they're lucky enough to find a wizard in time, they might very well survive. But that's probably just as well because Umayma is a harsh world: bathed in the light of two suns, it's hot and carcinogenic even without the plague-like bio-weapons the Nasheen and the Chenja seem to consider as fair game in their endless war.
To sum up, God's War features an excellent setting, interesting characters, fun action sections, and an intriguing boxing sub-theme, while the clever way it sets up and knocks down preconceived ideas about gender and culture differentiates itself from the crowd. In fact, the only serious problem with the book is the jarring decade-long jump that separates the prologue from the bulk of the action — I think my difficulty is the way that cuts the reader off from the impact of Nyx's imprisonment, whilst wanting them to buy into the idea that it continues to shape the course of her life in an important way ten years later — but once you're over that, the pace never really lets up.