I read about God’s War over on John Scalzi’s blog Whatever and was interested from the start. The story is set in the future on another planet where two of the major nations, both of them Muslim, have been at war for as long as anyone can remember. All males, with very few exceptions, are drafted to serve at “the front”, a nebulous place of battle that is never experienced in the book, so that the only men one encounters in the course of the novel are draftees who have reached the age of forty and are able to come home, young boys, run-aways and deserters, or political refugees. This leaves mostly women back at home to take care of things and so many of the main characters of this book are female. The fighting has been so brutal and going on for so long that it’s stained every aspect of the societies featured in the story. The men at the front are often idealized, spoken of with reverence and pity, and those that survive until forty (which are few) are seen as heroes (in some respects).
The main character of the book is named Nyx, a woman who begins the book as a bel dame, a state-approved assassin and headhunter responsible for killing people on behalf of her country (many of whom are male deserters from the front). Through the course of the book she’s eventually stripped of her title and position and spends five years in jail. After she gets out she returns to the life of violence that she knows, this time as a bounty hunter. Due to her resiliency and training as a bel dame, she’s hired by the queen of her nation to track down an off-worlder who is the key to potentially ending the war.
Unlike Horus Rising, God’s War was not an easy read.
First of all, the setting. The setting of God’s War is on a world that has been scarred so badly by war that there are few places experienced in the course of the story that haven’t been ruined by the conflict. The sense I got in the book was that vast stretches of land had been destroyed and reduced to barren wastelands and desert (if it wasn’t already) and the landscape is dotted with ruins. Cities and towns give the feeling like they’re pretty much desolate, places torn and scarred by fighting and violence. The war touches everything, every aspect of people’s lives from the constant threat of attack. It is not, in anyway, a happy place.
As far as the characters go, they are not easy characters either. Nyx herself is a bundle of mostly negative emotions, fueled in many ways by a fundamental self-loathing. Her magician Rhys, a political refugee in Nyx’s country and from the country that Nyx’s people are at war with, is conflicted about Nyx in that there are things about her he admires even if he finds most of her and what she does repugnant. There’s Khoros, a shifter from another one of the nations on the world, who also finds things about Nyx that he admires, even is attracted to, but similarly finds her abrasive at the best of times. The characters work together while not really liking Nyx and their interactions are dysfunctional and often harsh. At times I found the sometimes brutal nature of the team’s relationships to one and other hard to empathize with; I personally prefer stories where I can connect to the characters and sometimes it felt like the characters were pushing me, as the reader, just as much away as the other people in the book.
All of this is not to say that it isn’t a good story or a creative one. It’s just a hard one, a difficult one. I recently had the chance to give that feedback to Kameron on Whitechapel and she had this to say about her own work: “God’s War is def. not an easy read – harsh worlds make for harsh people, which isn’t for everyone (I’ve had some folks say the brutality reminds them of some of Abercrombie’s stuff, which also isn’t for everyone.”
However, I would recommend it. The descriptions of the characters and the setting are pretty superb and she introduces what she calls bugtech in the story (and defines the book as “bugpunk” elsewhere). Bugtech is the story’s one possible nod to magic or something extra-human other than the shape-changing shifters. People, known as magicians, have the ability to control insects of various kinds by will. These magicians have the ability to modify insects to do all kinds of things from acting as guards and look-outs, using their eyes to see, as communications networks, personal defense (how nasty would it to be surrounded by your own personal swarm of Asian giant hornets?), medicine and even locomotion (cars, called bakkie’s, are run off of bugs). The book also makes use of a lot of biotech and biopunk-esque technology, such as the ability to pretty much regrow entire limbs and even people’s heads and brains.
God’s War is definitely a fresh take on almost-apocalyptic SF (in that I’d argue the people of the war-torn world have been living on the brink of MAD for years) and the take on two Muslim countries fighting, rather than one pitting Christians vs. Muslims or Jews vs. Muslims, to be interesting. If harsh worlds, brutal characters, and interesting social commentary are your thing I’d recommend it. The sequel is out in December of this year apparently.