“”You didn’t make me,” Nyx gasped. “I made myself.””
It’s fiendishly difficult to know where to start with God’s War.
How about: it’s the story of Nyx, a disgraced government assassin for an Islamically-inflected matriarchy embroiled in a centuries-old holy war, who is contracted by her queen to find an ambassador from an alien planet who has mysteriously disappeared into the hive of politics and bloodshed that defines the desert planet of Umayma?
That’ll do, I think.
It sounds like a simple plot, but in no way is God’s War a simple book. Forceful, though? Yes. Look at the way it arrives in your life, as unapologetic as its protagonist:
Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.
Oh, hell yes.
That first sentence announces itself, radically, as the beginning to a novel about femininity. By the end of the first page, as well as selling the aforementioned body part, Nyx has bet all her money, and lost it, on a female boxer, and has slept with that boxer in what we later learn is a complicated ploy to win her trust and assassinate her draft-dodging brother. In other words: God’s War is a novel explicitly engaging with (rejecting?) ideas of traditional femininity, and what femininity means. It’s also a novel that engages with questions of identity performance (Nyx pretending, for instance, that she’s in love with the female boxer), and how important these might be to our constructs of femininity (as well as other kinds of identities).*
Hurley’s novel feels, initially, an extremely murky place to be, worldbuilding-wise, and that’s partly because Hurley pays a lot of attention to delineating very closely the numerous differences between those who inhabit her imagined societies. Of these there are several: the aforementioned Nasheen, a matriarchy where men are catcalled in the streets; Chenja, Nasheen’s principal opponent, where the few men lucky enough to survive or escape the omnipresent war have (essentially, own) up to twenty wives each; Mhoria, whose pale-skinned people shapeshift into animals; Ras Tieg, which appears to be a mixture of all of the above. Hurley is keen to differentiate not only the gender differences between each culture, but also the racial ones: this is a novel in which appearance matters very, very much. A dark-skinned (which is to say, Chenjan) man in Nasheen is in trouble. A woman on her own in Chenja is suspicious.
A narrative of performance, then, and one for which Hurley’s noirish mercenary plot is perfect, as Nyx and her motley crew of criminals move from country to country looking for the missing ambassador. All of them during the course of the novel create a kind of uncanny space for themselves in performing identity: Anneke, the female shooter, whose skinniness allows her to pass for a young man as she crosses the border into Chenja; Rhys, Nyx’s love interest, whose strict habits of prayer perform devout Chenjan-ness but who lacks the connection he hopes for with his god; Taite, the illegally gay male Ras Tiegan forced to conceal his relationship with his boyfriend; Taite’s sister, whose name I (somewhat shamefully) forget, a shifter full of self-loathing, performing devout and veiled femininity in order to escape her nature. The point is not one of stereotyping; the novel is more subtle than that. These performances are useful fictions, sometimes; sometimes they are prisons. The point is the space these characters carve out for themselves, between cultural truth and inner truth, a transgressive and borderline space, half-controlled, half-anarchic.
I wonder if we can’t connect this idea of transgressive space, this almost carnivalesque play of identity, with the setting of the novel, its unapologetically Islamic resonances. It’s all too easy, especially at the moment, for a Western audience to reduce “Muslim” to “Isis”, to “fundamentalism”, to “conservatism”. In its play between Nasheen and Chenja, its exploration of matriarchy and patriarchy and the shady borderlands between, God’s War feels like an attempt to transgress those reductive drives, to challenge simplicity with complexity. It creates interference patterns within the apparent absolutes of religion, gender, race; in the words of Sylvia Plath, it “shadows our safety” in dimly-felt unease.
*As an example of what I mean: I didn’t realise that Jaks-the-boxer was a woman until she crops up again later in the novel – I read “boxer” and went “male” without reading the rest of the sentence properly, and I think that’s exactly the kind of thing Hurley’s aiming to trip up.