Umayma is a planet like none other – it’s a desert world, fuelled by insects and grubs, scorched by a cancer-burning sun and divided into two by a dirty war of chemical and biological weaponry that has lasted for centuries. The almost entirely female country of Nasheen is committing gender genocide. Its men are sent to the front at 14 years old, inevitably to die, but if they survive to the age of 40 they are allowed to return. Those who flee from the front carry, allegedly, disease and contagion. They are hunted by the Bel Dame, a sisterhood of bounty hunters, whose mission is to collect their heads.
Nyxnissa, or Nyx, is a Bel Dame herself until her little bit of private enterprise sets the sisters against her, along with almost everyone else in the bounty hunting game. In a world where pain and torture have been taken to new levels of refinement – replacement limbs are common (best not to think where they come from) – its safe to say their plans for Nyx are not pleasant. But when Nyx and her gang are hired by the Queen to hunt for one particular missing person, one who might be able to end the war, her chance to redeem herself quickly becomes a scramble for survival that is as dirty and brutal as the planet itself.
God’s War is an extraordinary novel. This is science fiction world building at its finest but what a world! It’s difficult to imagine a more revolting place – the bugs and insects everywhere, some as big as a dog or bigger. People get around in bakkies, pug-powered organic vehicles, lights are lit by glow worms, everything is powered by bugs. The ‘wise’ people of society are bug-controlling magicians while its entertainers are boxers. Not everyone is entirely human – some can shift shapes and those who do, the half-breeds, are prejudiced against. Sexuality is also blurred but while homosexuality is tolerated between women, between men it is not. Body parts can be sold – we meet Nyx just after she has sold her womb to gene-stealing pirates – and babies are born in litters. But, as the title suggests, this planet might seem Godless to us but not to its inhabitants. The people of Nasheen and its great enemy Chenja live according to a religion with a familiarity to Islam. Others we encounter are reminiscent of Christians. But religious codes and ethics have shifted and distorted, been forgotten.
Kameron Hurley has a powerful voice, no punches are pulled, violence and aggression are commonplace. She’s created a heroine in Nyx who is the epitome of toughness but I couldn’t help but grow to like her. We do see a more vulnerable side to Nyx despite all her best intentions to keep it hidden. Her efforts to keep her motley crew together are admirable and arguably more than they deserve but as they know it’s only her will to survive that keeps them alive.
God’s War gives the reader so much to think about, fascinating and repulsing by turns like no other book I can remember reading. It presents a merciless world and it’s a compelling tale from the first attention-grabbing line. There’s no choice but to keep turning the pages as quickly as possible. The story continues in Infidel.