Some days, Nyx was a bel dame - an honored, respected, and deadly government-funded assassin - other days, she was just this: a butcher, a hunter, a woman with nothing to lose. And the butcher had a bounty to bring in.
Lesson for lit-blogging life: never read a book you know you're really going to want to write about on the eve of starting an all-consuming new job in a brand new city. It can only end in tears. That, and a seven-month wait of missed opportunities and lost momentum, of you and the book crossing paths at the wrong times, of watching everyone else say everything you wanted to say about it, and then - worst of all - moving on to other things* while you're still carrying the notes you wrote around in your bag, ever the optimist.
[ * Although I noticed just after writing that faux-gloomy sub-clause that some people are, like me, only just writing about it. So I'm not alone in being late to the conversation. ]
The novel in question is God's War (2011) by Kameron Hurley, a punchy, pacy science fictional thriller (with all sorts of deliciously knotty thematic goodness) that has the sort of opening you don't forget in a hurry:
Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.
Drunk, but no longer bleeding, she pushed into a smoky cantina just after dark and ordered a pinch of morphine and a whiskey chaser. She bet all of her money on a boxer named Jaks, and lost it two rounds later when Jaks hit the floor like an antique harem girl.
Nyx lost every coin, a wad of opium, and the wine she'd gotten from the butchers as a bonus for her womb. But she did get Jaks into bed, and - loser or not - in the desert after dark that was something.
Three short, snappy paragraphs in, and I'd already fallen hard for this book. There's the bold gut punch of the first line (wait, she sold her womb?), followed up by the viscerality and attitude of the second (the blood, the alcohol, the swaggering stagger of our protagonist pushing her way into a bar just after major surgery): this will be a story about gender, and embodied experience, and a heroine whose toughness is honed in large part through her own talent for getting into tight spots. (Okay, that last part comes more in retrospect: there's an air of the Indiana Jones about the way Nyx talks her way into getting sucker punched on a semi-regular basis.) Then we have the build-up and the bathos of the boxer going down like "harem girl", the qualifying adjective "antique" signalling that - for all the mention of deserts and the almost-familiar Middle Eastern-shading-into-Central Asian ring to the place names - this is not going to be some pseudo-1001 Nights image of Islam, or of Muslim women. Finally, we have the queering of boxer and harem girl alike, as Nyx takes the sexual intiative and "get[s] Jaks into bed".
A few pages later, I realised that Hurley also gives good townscape: vivid, faintly snarky (the second sentence here), and richly suggestive of far-future tech, bustling commercial life, and alien ecology:
Faleen was a port city, the kind that took in the ragged handfuls of off-world ships that sputtered into its archaic docking bay every year looking for repairs, supplies, and usually directions. Faleen wasn't the sort of place anybody off-world came to on purpose. Most of the ships that rocketed past Umayma were so alien in their level of technology that they couldn't have put into the old port if they wanted to. The port design hadn't changed much since the beginning of the world, and most everybody on Umayma wanted to keep it that way.
They drove past women and girls walking along the highway carrying baskets on their heads and huge nets over their shoulders. Bugs were popular trade to the magicians in Faleen. Professional creepers caught up to three kilos a day - striped chafers, locusts, tumble bugs, spider wasps, dragonflies, pselaphid beetles, fungus weevils - and headed to the magicians' gym to trade them in for opium, new kidneys, good lungs, maybe a scraping or two to take off the cancers.
The novel does, from time to time, pause to catch its breath - particularly when we're sharing the viewpoint of the secondary protagonist Rhys, of whom more below - but the delight in the act of imagining the world and its larger-than-life characters, which I find in both the quoted passages, is ever-present. Some of the reviews I linked above found the onslaught of new! fun! stuff! and the kitchen sink too! a bit much, but I revelled in the energy of it. The headlong dash of a pace does stumble on a couple of occasions, notably over the (ill-advised) structural tripwire of following up the breakneck opening adventure with a One Year Later time shift after 50 pages. But on balance, God's War more than lived up to its early, in-your-face promise, and ended up being one of my favourite reads of last year; not least, because Hurley does such intriguing things with gender.
As I read on from that opening scene, following Nyx through the morning after the womb-selling night before, it dawned on me that virtually everyone with whom Nyx interacts, in any capacity, is a woman: cops, generals, traders, mechanics, guards. Her cultural reference points, too - when they aren't about something related to the desert (one character's distaste is shown when her face "scrunche[s] up like a date") - position women, not men, as the measure against which things can be judged; "every woman worth her weight in blood", she reflects, knows how to do basic repairs on the local equivalent of a car.
For generations, Nyx's homeland, Nasheen - one of several states carved out of the dusty, inhospitable surface of the planet Umayma - has been embroiled in a bitter war of attrition with neighbouring Chenja. Both countries have been shaped by the conflict: specifically, by the vast price paid in young men's lives, which has utterly distorted their demographics, and the way their respective religious traditions (both variants of Islam) have developed to cope with this. In Chenja, the response has been an entrenchment of patriarchy: rigid segregation of the sexes in public life, a host of finger-wagging restrictions on women's demeanour and behaviour, and endemic polygamy (the ceiling on the permissible number of wives having been raised significantly from the traditional four of Islamic law); I also got the impression that men in certain classes and professions - perhaps heads of families? - were excused from military service.
Nasheen, meanwhile, has been force-grown in a matriarchal direction: it is ruled by a queen and an almost exclusively female military and political elite, while virtually all men serve on the front until they turn forty or die, whichever comes first. Generally, it's the latter. Like the veiling of Chenja's women and its exaggerated practise of polygamy, this, too, is an extrapolation of Islamic law, honed to brutal extremes by science fictional cirumstance. Although the term jihad is never used in the book, as far as I can remember, arguably the idea - hotly debated for centuries - that warfare for the defence and expansion of the community is a fard al-'ayn (an individual obligation for all Muslims, or all Muslim men, as opposed to a fard al-kifaya, something that can be carried out on their behalf, say by a professional army) is at the root of Nasheen's implacably callous treatment of its boys and men. It is also the reason for the state's employment of people like Nyx to enforce the policy:
A clerk the color of honey had given Nyx a bel dame's note for a boy named Arran nearly three months before after he'd deserted his place at the front and sought refuge in Chenja. His officer had called in the bel dames because she believed he'd been exposed to a new Chenjan burst, a delayed viral vapor that hid out in the host for up to four months before triggering an airborne contagion capable of taking out half a city before the magicians could contain it. Nyx had gone into the bel dame office and been inoculated against the latest burst, so all she had to do was bleed on the boy to neutralize the contagion, then cut off his head and take him home. Even clean, the penalty for desertion was death. Boys either came home at forty or came home in a bag. No exceptions.
This was Nyx’s job.
Some days, it paid well.
The result is two radically different understandings of gender, born from the same set of cultural and religious traditions, which repeatedly throw each other into relief in all sorts of creative and interesting ways. These understandings clash most directly and frequently in the respective forms of Nyx, the hard-drinking, brutally-competent bounty hunter, and Rhys, a deeply pious (but in his own way rebellious) Chenjan refugee with a taste for poetry. For the first half of the novel, Rhys is our fish-out-of-water, his disapproving but thoughtful gaze showing us Nasheen - and Chenja - through the contrasts he notices:
He remembered how strange it was to see her eyes at all. He had heard that Nasheenian woman did not wear veils, but he still found her vanity surprising, decadent. Chenjan women could submit to God and wield a rifle with equal ease, but Nasheenian women had allowed their propensity for violence to pollute their beliefs. Wielding a rifle, they believed, made them men in the eyes of God, and men did not have to practice modesty or submission to anyone but God. Nasheenian women had forgotten their place in the order of things.
To Rhys, newly arrived, Nasheenians are "godless women who murdered men and bred like flies"; later, he reflects pityingly that, while women in Chenja always have "husbands and brothers or sons who were responsible for them, even if those husbands looked after forty or fifty wives", Nasheenian women "all came to adulthood with the terrible knowledge that they had to fend for themselves in this terrible desert". Nyx, by contrast, notes with (not unambiguous) relish that "Women in Nasheen didn't grow up looking for husbands. They grew up looking for honor and glory".
The gendering of the interactions between Nyx and Rhys is fascinating: variously exhilarating and thought-provoking in its subversiveness. Nyx regularly fixes on aspects of Rhys' physical appearance that are coded feminine (we're told he has "pretty, dark eyes with long lashes", for example); when Rhys - much later in the story - finally comes to pay explicit attention to the physicality of Nyx, it is her strength he focuses on:
"Nyxnissa," Rhys said, opening his eyes. He saw the sweat beading her forehead, her glistening bare arms. The gun was heavy, and as she stood against the window frame in her breast binding and knee-high trousers, baldric too tight, he saw the power in her arms, the muscle under her flesh. He had felt it when she pushed him to the floor, the weight of her.
She turned to them, outlined in the blue haze of the coming night, and in her face - the hard jaw and suddenly flat, fathomless eyes - he saw the woman who had burned at the front. He was breathless.
I like this passage a lot. Nyx is not unsexed, here - the reference to breast-binding arguably draws attention to her womanhood, rather than implying a denial of it - and her attractiveness is a powerfully embodied thing. Yet there is also no sense in which she is an object, even when viewed through male eyes; and in this description she is, as in much of the novel, carefully controlled and difficult to read, in contrast to Rhys' passionate sensitivity.
This off-kilter gendering is equally pronounced when Nyx and Rhys talk: Nyx tends to be blunt and abrasive, prone to completely misjudging Rhys' mood; Rhys tries to make conversation for its own sake, and rather than reacting with aggression when Nyx blunders into offending him, Rhys internalises his bewildered hurt ("He looked down into his lap so she could not see his face. Sometimes he wondered how two people could work together for so long and still know nothing about one another") or meets her lack of tact with wounded dignity:
"Just make it look good, all right? It's bad enough you're Chenjan."
"I didn't ask to go along. If you take offense at the—"
"It's your fucking accent I can't stand." Something roiled up in her, something old and twisted. She hated it even as the words slipped out. She pressed her fist to her belly.
He shut his book and stood. "Excuse me."
"I signed an employment contract with you," he snapped. "You did not obtain a writ of sale. I’ll be in the dining car." He rolled open the door. It banged behind him.
Nyx rubbed at her face. The worst of her troubles always started with what came out of her mouth.
(This exchange wouldn't be out of place in a screwball comedy, only Rhys is Katharine Hepburn and Nyx is Cary Grant.) All of this makes Nyx and Rhys alike fascinating characters to spend time with. Rhys' faith is sensitively drawn - the way it shapes his reactions, the comfort it offers him - and his nuanced, bookish insight means he is a welcome change of pace, a still centre at the heart of the novel's often chaotic whirl of action and colour; but it also makes him stubbornly, wilfully ignorant and deeply vulnerable to the challenge to his gendered identity that Nyx poses. Nyx deepens and to some extent problematises the kick-arse heroine archetype: her attitude and her aptitude for violence make her mesmerising company, but the prickly pride and the rashness that go along with the mindset needed to survive in her world mean that she puts characters we care about in danger, repeatedly and often with fatal consequences. Towards the end of this instalment - God's War is the first in a trilogy - it becomes increasingly explicit that Hurley is using Nyx to explore the costs and limitations of the very violent heroism that makes the novel such a bloody-minded joy to read:
Nyx had wanted to be the hero of her own life. Things hadn't turned out that way. Sometimes she thought maybe she could just be the hero of someone else's life, but there was no one who cared enough about her to keep that close. Hell, there was nobody she'd let that close. No one wanted a hero who couldn't even save herself.
The gender dynamics go beyond Rhys and Nyx, although they're particularly pronounced in their case. Rhys is propositioned by women more than once, with an openness he finds both crude and bizarre. "Ah, the shit I'd like to do to you", says one, prompting Rhys to reassure himself that he can't possibly be a sexual object, since "Chenjan mullahs taught that men's bodies were clean, asexual [...] Women, real women, were not stirred to sin at the sight of men."
More generally, boys and young men are fetishized and coddled for their utterly involuntary sacrifice in service of Nasheen, in a way that is reminiscent of the infantilising pseudo-awe bestowed upon women for bearing and raising children - and remaining virginally 'pure' until such time as they're able to do that in the sanctioned setting of marriage - in the more patriarchal segments of western society today (hello, purity balls and crisis pregnancy centres). 'Good' boys are placed on pedestals and treated as if they're fragile - at one stage Nyx gets out of a rickshaw and holds out her hand to help Rhys down - until they can go to the front to die, while boys who fall through the cracks become prostitutes, or are executed as deserters. The birth of a boy is a time of grief for his mother, because one way or another she is likely to outlive him.
To cut a very long-winded story short, the examination of gender supplies much of the attitude and energy of the novel. The fact that it is overwhelmingly women who do the posturing and the violence is undeniably a part of what makes it such refreshing fun to read: it's there in the way Nyx recruits her dirty-dozen team (there's a running joke about one woman she lures away from a rival team by promising her "a bigger gun"); it's there in her enemies, like this former bel dame sister:
Rasheeda kicked one of the chairs around and sat backward on it, folding her arms over the headrest. Luce slouched in the chair next to her and let her burnous fall back to reveal the ivory hilts of her pistols.
The other aspect of the novel of particular interest to me (given my professional interests as a historian of the Islamic world) was Hurley's effort to imagine Islam - or rather, Islams, plural - in space. The planet Umayma is home to a number of different communities, all variants of one of the three Abrahamic religions (and in at least one case possibly a synthesis of them), but the focus in God's War is on the future!Muslims. Naturally, this means quite a bit of Arabic, which I will now geekily catalogue for you. Feel free to skip the rest of the review and just go straight to buying the book. ;-)
The name Umayma itself sounds like the diminutive form of umma, 'community' (historically, a way of referring to the Muslim community as a whole, above and beyond political/linguistic/sectarian/etc boundaries), and thus conveys very neatly the sense that this is an offshoot, a colony world. Overall, it is evident that, to the extent that Nasheen's cultural roots are Arabic, the language itself has long since developed into something only distantly related to today's fusha or the Classical Arabic of the Qur'an. (I vaguely got the impression that Chenja might have a more Iranian heritage, not least because the letter/sound 'ch' exists in Persian but not in Arabic.) As Ian Sales has noted, for example, naming practices seem to have gone awry, with several female characters sporting male names like Husayn and Reza. 'Yah' has morphed from the vocative particle (a word you put in front of the name of someone you're addressing, sort of a cross between 'Hey' and the 'O' of archaic English, as in "O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou...?") to being an honorific title, accorded only - as far as I can tell - to the small class of people who are trained as magicians.
Terminology more directly related to religious practises, as may be expected, hews closer to usages familiar to me: at one point "the waqf" is mentioned in passing (it's glossed as "the dole", which seems a logical development; historically, waqfs were private endowments created to support the upkeep and staffing of family mausoleums, schools, hospitals, etc; here, the term seems to signify a form of state-organised social security). To 'collect the zakat' (an obligatory tithe on personal wealth that goes to the poor), however, seems to have taken on a slang meaning along the lines of 'pay the piper'.
The Nasheenians' holy book is called the Kitab, the meaning of which represents an interestingly symbolic drift (for all I know unintentionally so). The name 'Qur'an' comes from the verb meaning 'to read aloud' or 'to recite', reflecting both the tradition that the Prophet Muhammad was illiterate (and thus a blank slate for the revelations he received), and the long-standing emphasis in Islam on orality: on learning the holy text by heart rather than having to consult a written copy, and experiencing it through communal worship, something that is read or recited aloud. Calling the Qur'an - or possibly a future!Qur'an - the Kitab (literally 'book', from the verb 'to write'), on the other hand, suggests that the text is now something accessed at a remove rather than committed to memory, and highlights the fact that the language in which it is written is now archaic, no longer a spoken, living thing.
End geeking. Go read!