Are you frustrated with Mary Sue heroines? Well, here comes God's War to rock your face off.
This novel is bleak, epic clusterfuckery in the tradition of Iain M. Banks. There are no massive spaceships or fabricated planets, but there's that familiar sense it's all going massively wrong for the main characters. Their world is mean, dirt-poor and war-torn. Heroine Nyx used to be a bel dame, an elite government assassin. Now she's just a bounty hunter who says things like: "Nobody knows anything. We're all working on blind faith." Her crew is a motley assortment: Rhys, a charmingly self-righteous magician; Khos, a conflicted shifter; Anneke, another crazy warrior woman; and Taite, her sickly com tech. Every last one seems to have been born under a bad star. When the Queen personally summons Nyx and asks her to retrieve a missing off-worlder, intimating riches and pardons and visas for the entire gang, it means trouble.
First off, a few words about God's War's protagonist. If you like rough, battle-scarred women who know how to regulate, you're going to love Nyx. She drinks, smokes, and sleeps promiscuously with both men and women. She makes Han Solo look like a boy scout. Her moral compass might not point quite in the direction of true north, but she sticks to the rules she sets for herself and she's hell on wheels in a fight. Her Pandora station would lean heavily on Bikini Kill.
The first 50 pages of this novel are a slog. The reader parachutes right in media res with few signposts towards the plot. Nyx has just hawked her womb in pursuit of a deserter she's assigned to behead for the bel dames, an assignment that's already gotten her partner killed. There's little narrative hand-holding. All that's clear is everyone seems to want to kill the main character, for about a hundred different reasons. But rest assured that Hurley is just winding everything up, and once you wade through the setup, the next 230 pages are incredibly fast-paced.
Given the complexity of the world Hurley has created, the steep learning curve isn't so surprising. Nasheen and Chenja take up most of their planet, trashing the place with their centuries-long holy war. So far, nothing special. Hurley ramps up the concept by making the warring parties far-future adherents of Islam. Again: nothing too crazy. But instead of using the premise to climb up on soapbox about twenty-first-century geopolitics, Hurley has built a society where Nyx makes sense. In Nasheen, women call the shots. Their ruler is a queen, and her elite assassins are female. Men are shipped to the front and women remain behind, building weapons and policing the realm.
It's not an easy country to rule, either. In fact, it comes off as a miserable hellhole. The sun's so strong skin cancer is pretty much a given. There are suggestions early settlers did serious damage to the planet. Even if they hadn't, centuries of war have wrecked huge swaths of territory, and not with simple conventional weapons. Technology — everything from cars to bombs — is bug-based, composed of partially organic materials. That means even the deadliest bombs turn the night sky green and smell of lavender. There's an entire class of people, called magicians, who can call up and command insects of all sorts. They've been pressed into the war effort as well, of course.
The result is high-concept brain candy. The treatment of gender is thought-provoking and assumption-challenging, but it's also created an action heroine worth cheering for. And instead of infodumping all over the place, Hurley treats half-beetle cars and womb-selling and weaponized roaches like no big thing. That makes every clue about this world's origins all the more compelling. It's hard to keep Nyx's enemies straight, but that's easier to forgive when the SF stuff is so fascinating.
But the lack of a big-picture explanation does get frustrating. It's not clear how far into the future we are, what drove people from Earth, or what the interplanetary human community looks like. We know there are humans off-world and we get glimpses of what it might look like, but mostly it's a mystery. Instead, we get an in-the-trenches view of this world, from people who have little influence over its course. Nyx isn't a super secret agent or an alien princess or a genius. The back cover makes an "anyone can change the world" pitch, but while Nyx is definitely caught up in some foundation-shaking business, her options are limited. But Night Shade has a sequel on the way, and hopefully it'll bring enlightenment.