I'm quite often late to the party these days, but usually not quite this late. First published in the US in 2011, Kameron Hurley's God's War
won a British Fantasy Society award and the 2011 Kitschies Award for Best Debut Novel, and after it was published in the UK in 2013 was shortlisted for the Clarke Award. I was at the ceremony, where extracts from the contenders were read out (an idea that was much, much better than it first sounded), was taken by the novel's strong voice, and bought it a couple of days later. Not my usual route to a book, but hey, as long as it works.
It's set in an indeterminate future on a colony world where a religious war has been raging for centuries, kind of like a blend of First World War trench warfare and last century's conflict between Iran and Iraq. Nyx, a dogged, damaged bounty hunter, so broke she sells her womb, is tossed into prison by her enemies, raises a crew when she's released, and takes on a commission to find an off-worlder on the wrong side of the interminable war, racing against those same enemies, who this time want her dead. Its pulpish narrative is more than a little uneven (although I quite like the way Hurley takes to extremes Elmore Leonard's rule to miss out the parts readers skip over), but Hurley is very good at showing, not telling, the details of Nyx's world, where a kind of Islam contests with a kind of Christianity, men are sent to war by a tough unflinching matriarchy, magicians manipulate insect-based biotech, and shape-changers attract the attention of those off-worlders. And like Joanna Russ's Alyx, Nyx isn't simply a woman who beats men at their own game, and God's War
is rather more than a simple inversion of cliched sci-fi and fantasy hack-'em-ups.
For a start, there are clear consequences and costs to the outbursts of violence that punctuate its story: Hurley's anti-hero is damaged and brutalised by her chosen life. We see her most clearly through the eyes of one of her crew, Rhys, a second-rate magician from who dislikes what she does yet still loves her, although it's more complicated than the kind of hero-worship by the female love-interest in a more conventional novel, because Rhys is an avowed pacifist. He's also a refugee from the enemy country, and in his adopted home encounters prejudices against both his sex and nationality. He's beaten up by a gang of women, dons a burqa to
escape the disapproving female gaze, and in short must deal with the kind of problems that women in our world must deal with.
It's not only a great example of how science fiction and fantasy can point up the faultlines of our own
society; it's also an exemplar of the way that writers should always
challenge preconceptions. There are far too many SF and fantasy
novels which don't colour outside the genre lines. Far too many that reuse tropes without examining them, or transpose received notions from the author's culture directly into the future. And far too many in which women are the victims, or the prize or reward for the
hero, or little more than the object of the male gaze - the author's as well as the
characters. (It's not a problem peculiar to science fiction - how many crime novels start with a
murdered woman?) God's War
challenges that kind of default assumption on every page, and the result is hugely
refreshing and thought-provoking.