Niall Harrison (coalescent) wrote,
Niall Harrison

God's War

Round one. This is how it starts: "Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert": and then we're in the book. I think those fifteen words are a great first sentence primarily for their economy, for the terseness which is successfully challenging for at least one reader, and yet which manages to begin to sketch a world, a situation, a character, and most importantly, a tone. It's fair warning: God's War means it. God's War will make us think and feel. The straight-faced intensity does just occasionally become parodic, but is sustained well enough that the following two hundred and eighty-five pages feel like a promise fulfilled: they are invigorating. They are also complex, full of intersections, and tricky to decompose and retell in a review.

Round two. The world is Umayma, megayears away in light and time, and deeply lived in. A dry world, for the most part, with two suns but few stars in the night sky; home to a handful of nations of the People of the Book, each of which has drifted more or less from the Abrahamic faiths of our present, two of which are engaged in a longtime grinding conflict that has come to define them. Their lands are places of sand and gravel, big angry skies, bugs (see below) and melted ruins. In the blue corner, we have Nasheen, which is where we start with Nyx (see below), who is tracking a not-too-great boxer named Jaks to get to her brother, a deserter: "Boys either came home at forty or came home in a bag. No exceptions" (8). This is, we learn, her job as a bel dame, because Nasheen has been for 250 years a matriarchal monarchy that breeds its men for the eternal but never-seen (by us) front. We might already have noticed that the men in the first chapter of God's War are dead, sexual toys, or literally emasculated, and the women are everyone else, from Nyx's geneticist sister to the bouncers to the black-market dealer who sells Nyx out. Later in the novel we travel to the red corner, Chenja, whose oppressions are almost conventionally patriarchal, complete with polygamy; and in the second chapter we meet Rhys, a devout Chenjan runaway and would-be magician (see below) who falls into Nyx's orbit while experiencing extreme cognitive dissonance. (Hurley manages the tricky feat of making Rhys a man with provincial views but a good character, at least for my money.) Clustered around the ring are other nations, each with their own religious and political specificities: Tirhan, which may be the most egalitarian of the countries, but whose inhabitants profit from both sides of the Nasheenian-Chenjan war as arms dealers; Ras Tieg, which is water-rich but nearly heretical; Mhoria, which is unconventionally patriarchal, and home to many shifters (see below). Most of these have representatives in the book. The accretion of cultural detail is constant, and constantly nuanced by a series of distinctive viewpoints; the world as a whole is a marvel.

Round three. It shouldn't be a surprise that an interesting world breeds interesting people, but interesting people are always surprising. God's War is about a woman (see below) and about a world (see above), but the negotiations between those two things are mediated by a supporting cast whose variegated heritage allows them to tick just about every diversity box going without contrivance. Eight years and about forty pages after being sold out, Nyx has been into prison and out again, lost her bel dame license and put together a bounty hunter's team: Rhys; plus the pale gay half-breed Ras Tiegan comms expert Taite, nervous that he's about to be drafted to the front for Nasheen; plus the big Mhorian shapshifter Khos, who spends a lot of time in brothels; plus Anneke, the small wiry Nasheenian almost as dark-skinned as a Chenjan, who likes guns. (She's perhaps the least-developed character, but no less entertaining for that.) This team -- they feel like colleagues -- enrich the novel. Most of them get a meaningful number of pages as our viewpoint without feeling used up by the experience. Around them are others, of whom the most interesting is probably Taite's pregnant sister Inaya, who ends up with Nyx's team somewhat reluctantly, while the most significant may be Nasheen's Queen, who finds Nyx a useful player to put in the ring, setting her on the trail of a vanished offworlder who may (of course) hold the key to ending the war, and creating the conditions for Hurley's cast to bounce off each other in creative and entertaining ways.

Round four. Nyxnissa so Dasheem is God's War's alpha (see above) and omega (last line: "Nyx went on"). Farmer's daughter, dyslexic, veteran, bisexual, bounty hunter, force of nature, woman of Nasheen. What others think about her: "She was coarse and foul-mouthed and godless" (72, Rhys); "The world could burn around her [...] and she would get up after the fire and walk barefoot over the charred soil in search of clean water, a weapon, a purpose" (231, Khos); "She tended to believe that every conversation involving strong emotion was full of words and resolutions that were not meant, as if he were a raving drunk" (146, Rhys again). What she says about herself: "I believe in myself. That's enough" (60). What I say about her: clearly enough an entry into the tradition of self-made and self-reliant female heroes, in the mould of Alyx or Sarah Connor, say, or Monza Murcatto (from Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold, the hyper-cynical politics of which make an interesting contrast to those of God's War); inheritor of certain traits traditionally coded masculine (she's the strong silent type); not very emotionally useful; both supported and problematised by her context (see below) in a way that many of her ancestors are not. And an awful lot of fun to watch in action.

Round five. In a blog post for the British Library, Gwyneth Jones recently wrote: "Adventure fantasy may be the characteristic content of sf, but the project of imagining the ideal future is never far away." One way to describe God's War is to say that it's the best sort of supporting evidence for this argument. The "adventure" aspect of the novel is relatively straightforward, in that the plot is linear and has its share of thrills and spills and bad guys, albeit embedded in a more textured setting (see above) than is usually the case. Considering God's War as fantasy is more complex, and not just because of the magicians (see below). To single out one axis of fantasy, and one country, Nasheen is not a utopia (their reproductive practices, for instance, will challenge many), nor is it experienced as such by its inhabitants (it is a war economy, with plenty of poverty); but there are things it does well that our world does badly, in a way that puts God's War in dialogue with the tradition of feminist utopian writing. We are encouraged to take joy in the freedoms of the women of Nasheen, in their power and diversity. They "didn't grow up looking for husbands," we're told. "They grew up looking for honor and glory" (64). In fact it is, I think, hard to read God's War and not be confronted by the fact that Nasheen enables many thousands of women to live lives with an automatic belief in their identity and strength (of any kind) that our world would like to deny to as many as possible. (And the most radical move in the novel may be that Nyx, in all her radical confidence, is created in a context in which she is not exceptional.) But in Nasheen this has not come for free. Rhys is beaten when he walks the streets alone; his interaction with Nyx makes it quite clear both of them have been denied the tools to develop a healthy romantic relationship with a member of the opposite sex by their society; and he is justified, I think, in referring to Nasheen's conscription of its men as "the genocide of a gender" (207). None of this justifies his belief that "Nasheenian women had forgotten their place in the order of things" (19); but it suggests that the tragedy of Nasheen is that it aspires to be Omelas.

Round six. Fantasy again (see above), in the form of the ubiquitous bugs of Umayma -- seemingly adapted to every tool-like roll, from lights to engines to weapons to surgery -- and the magicians who control them (and may have had a hand in making the world, millennia ago), and shifters who can become animals; these things lend God's War a distinct and estranging flavour. Yet God's War is also science fiction, in that this paradigm is given a technological gloss, having to do with pheromones, apparently, and reprogramming insects "at the cellular level" (93), and who knows what quantum trickery when it comes to shapeshifters. (All we know is that they need to eat a lot of protein.) This may seem to risk overloading a novel already loaded with texture of other kinds (see above), but I'd argue the messy biotechnology is part of what gives coherence to the whole -- narratively, as it turns out, but also aesthetically. The playful weirdness of Umayma's technoculture goes hand in hand with the inventiveness of its political culture: the existence of the decades-long front, for instance, which remains off-stage except briefly in memory, becomes somehow mythic, rather than improbable. And the brashness of bugtech sits well with the brutal directness of the narrative voice. God's War is a book that wants to get in your face (see below).

Final round. In the end, it comes back to the ring, to Nyx and Jaks, and to boxing.
Most people who watch a fight think it's all about the muscle: hitting harder, moving faster. And, yeah, sometimes it looked that way. But telling somebody that you won a fight by hitting harder and more often was like telling somebody that the way you kept from drowning was by moving your arms and legs.

Once two fighters knew how to fight, they stood pretty even. What made one win and the other fall wasn't about blood or sinew or sweat. It was about will. (264)

As in the ring, so outside it. Umayman governments are entities for control more than they are entities for liberation, and they work because they are meant. They inspire belief, and believers -- and submission as part of that belief -- none more so than Nasheen and Chenja. None more so than Nyx, whose team believe in her (see above), who endures (see above). And as in the ring, so for God's War, whose characters argue with the beliefs around them (some of which I've barely touched on here), and which means to remind us to argue with the beliefs we breathe: which knows that the best adventure fantasies are about more than hitting harder and moving faster, that they have to mean every word. In the process of executing this notion God's War occasionally creaks -- if the novel has a weakness it's that the plot is a touch mechanical at times -- but it is never dull, because it is always passionate. And give me that over cool control, this day, to remind me it could be otherwise. Give me this fight.

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