Monday, November 28, 2011

Infidel by Kameron Hurley is the Book O' the Fortnight

You may have noticed some changes here at Solomon Mao’s recently, Readers Mine. I decided it was time to refresh the look of things a little and add some new bells and whistles, among which is the Book O’ the Week, which you see to the upper left. The theory is that every week I’ll choose a book I’ve read and really enjoyed, write a quick review post, and then leave a linked cover shot up until the next week. Of course, in reality, I’ve had Vernor Vinge’s Children of the Sky up for a good two and a half weeks now, so maybe I should call the piece the “Book O’ the Fortnight,” which doesn’t sound all that bad actually.

God's War by Kameron Hurley
Anyway, I’m pleased to put up Kameron Hurley’s Infidel as the new Book O’! Hurley’s a recent discovery on my part, as I picked up her first novel, God’s War, this summer and pretty much was instantly hooked on the worlds she has made and the words she uses to make them. God’s War and Infidel are the first two books in a series set on the planet Umayma (an Arabic name meaning “high mother” or “little mother”), a world originally fundamentally hostile to human life which was roughly terraformed many centuries ago and thus at the time of the novels is merely inhospitable. Not that you can really blame the planet. See, the terraforming was carried out by semi-mythical “magicians” using bugs, bioengineered insects which presumably breathed in whatever mix of atmospheric gases was originally present and belched out a good ol’ nitrogen-oxygen-argon-etc mix, and broke down and fertilized the soil, made the water drinkable, etc, etc, until the planet’s putative population, until this time eaking out an existence on the several moons around Umayma, could come on down, though they may have done so before things were quite ready. Of course, like all human technologies the bugs had – well – bugs, and sometimes the terraforming… got interesting.

Anyway, the settlers were largely of a faith derived from Islam, with a few non-Muslim groups thrown in. At first Umayma had a planetary government and a kind of all powerful, all female planetary special forces/religious police force, the bel dames. As in “sans merci.” Soon enough, people being people, this set up went to hell, several separate nations states emerged from the chaos, and two hundred odd years ago, two of those, Nasheen and Chenja, started a war that’s been going strong ever since, fueled by religious intolerance, nationalism, and chemical and biological weapons that make a genegineered ebola-smallpox hybrid look like dessert topping.

Out of this world and this war steps Nyxnissa so Dasheem, “Nyx” – ex soldier, ex-bel dame, and one of the hardest boiled anti-heroes to come down the pike in a long while. Nyx isn’t just hard, she’s brutal. Not driven, but ruthless. Just to give you some idea, here’s the very first line of God’s War:

“Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.”

Yeah. Like that. Hurley’s prose is tight and hard, sometimes coming so fast and clipped that it reads like the sound of a master chef chopping celery. Nyx is a product of her world, and Hurley somehow makes you want to love and hate her at the same time. Her foil is Rhys, a tall drink of water, half-assed magician, and observant Muslim who is soft where Nyx is hard, and hard where she is, unexpectedly, soft.

I’m not going to go into the story of Infidel here, because it’s the second book in the series, and because the tale it tells is inextricably bound up in the world Hurley has created. This truly is one of the most magnificent examples of world-building I’ve seen in decades, and the characters are a part and parcel of that building. Be advised, this ain’t your granny’s SF/F. Hurley pulls no punches, gives no easy answers, and she shies away from nothing. Race, religion, gender roles, sex, drugs, violence, war, politics, business… all of that is here in all of its rotting glory, but there are also people desperately looking for something to believe in, something to live by and for, even if they have to invent it for themselves. I’ve seen Hurley’s work called “feminist science fiction,” “bug noir,” even “bug punk.” Whatever. I call it fast-paced, well written, meticulously detailed, character-driven, bad-ass writing, and I think you will too.

Buy her stuff. You’ll like it.

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