Reviewed by Richard Webb @RaW_writing
All writing advice tells you to have a strong opening line. This book has a killer, which sets the tone, gripping and frog-marching the reader into a world which feels unlike any other in contemporary SFF.
Part of that is due to Hurley’s unique creation: ‘bug’ magic. Yes, bugs. They are everywhere in this world, in an array of forms, acting as sentient ‘hives’ of magic transmission when controlled by naturally-gifted magicians. Acting like an energy, different bugs power different benefits, from illuminating a light-bulb, to fueling the engine of a ‘bakkie’ jeep, to embodying a force-field or fireball flung from the fingertips of a bug-mage.
This ‘Insectmancy’, (or Bugpunk as the author prefers), gives the book an itchy Cronenberg-like quality on one hand, but on the other, using creepy-crawlies as a magical power source could be hard to buy into, so it is to Hurley’s credit that she seamlessly weaves this implausibility into the fabric of her setting.
And appreciating the setting is the key to the book, as it informs all the characters and events. It is a dirty, desolate, desert populated by constantly warring cultures, warped values and misappropriated technologies eg. the medical capability to regenerate damaged organs has created a black market in body parts. Within this world, adult men are expendable, sent to the frontline to fight/die for their country; absconders are tracked and terminated by ruthless bounty-hunters.
One such head-hunter is the central character, Nyxnissa, aka Nyx, and what a piece of work she is: a determined, resourceful badass, tough and uncompromising, coarse in both manner and sexuality. Like the world she inhabits, Nyx seems devoid of all grace or gentleness. But whilst it is understandable that someone in her bloody profession is desensitized to life’s harshness, Nyx is so hard-edged, so single-minded that it is sometimes challenging to care about her; her feelings are so suppressed she occasionally lacks a third-dimension and the reader is reliant on the emotional intelligence of the character Rhys to give a more nuanced interpretation of events.
This gender-swap, giving typically ‘male action lead’ characteristics to the leading lady and more ‘female’ emotive qualities to the supporting male role, gives the book its fundamental balance and contrast; indeed it is only when Nyx and Rhys team up that the story fully gets going. This is after the first 10 chapters, which feel like an extended prologue in which Nyx ‘talks the talk’, but doesn’t yet show how she ‘walks the walk’.
The world, Nyx, her rival hunters, everything, seem unrelenting. As such, the book risks sounding a single, continuous bleak note without offering the possibility of brighter futures: what are characters fighting for if there is no chance for optimism? Survival perhaps, but why? This is left open…
Overall the book is a compelling read, feeling like a future-flung, bio-magic version of the Gulf War; The God’s War has all the brutality and futility of a conflict with no winners, in which both external and internal landscapes are broken and bereft.