Occasionally, a book comes along that manages to combine original world-building with a great story. It is something to revel in, and Hurley has delivered that in spades. Here we have not just an adventure story through a beautifully detailed world, but a complex political thriller that could compete with House of Cards.
Zan awakes, confused and suffering memory loss, after leading an attack on a world known as the Mokshi. She doesn’t know who she is, or the people who surround her, who call themselves the Katazyrnas. Their leader, Anat, is obsessed with capturing the Mokshi, and harvesting the power contained within it. Jayd, meanwhile, acts as Zan’s protector, but gives herself up in marriage to a rival power, the Bhavajas. Anat recycles Zan to the centre of the world, while Jayd discovers that the Bhavajas are not nearly as easily hoodwinked as she thought.
All of this sets up a dual-perspective novel tracing two very different but intertwined stories. Zan’s narrative is a more traditional adventure quest, one where she must discover who she really is as she finds her way back up from the bottom of the world to the top. Jayd, meanwhile, must navigate the complex politics of the Bhavajas through her allure and sexual appeal to their leader, Rasida.
Hurley’s world, however, is what makes the novel truly unique. It is not just that everything is alive, from the guns to the tools to the world itself, nor that the worlds are entirely populated by women. Hurley has created a gripping story that also explores femininity, pregnancy, love, rebirth, and death. Although it’s possible to guess at Zan’s true identity from fairly early on, the constant twists and turns keep the reader engaged anyway.
Zan’s journey from the bottom of the world reveals the complexity of the environment these women both live in and continually create. Pregnancy and birth are a natural and constant feature of their lives, but in a new and unexpected way that sheds new light on what it means to be capable of pregnancy and child-bearing. Jayd’s story focuses on similar issues, placing women’s reproductive capacity at the heart of the world and its continued survival. A subject that is usually entirely absent from both sci-fi and fantasy, or at least the point when a female character is removed from the story.
Hurley’s approach completely shifts the balance, without reducing women to their productive capacity but rather elevating it to something central. It is now a powerful, emotional, and exhausting experience, yet at the same time Hurley reveals that all these women have more to give than just their bodies. They live out meaningful lives in complex and very different societies. The result is a fascinating exploration of what it means to be a woman, and puts itself in balance against all those many, many books in which women are almost or entirely absent.