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Werthead

[Book review]: The Bel Dame Apocrypha by Kameron Hurley

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Book 1: God's War

 

 

 

The world of Umayma is divided between two warring superpowers, Nasheen and Chenja, and a whole host of  neutral nations surrounding them. The nations are divided by religion, each preaching a different version of their holy book split along gender lines. Nyx is a native of Nasheen, a bel dame assassin sent out to do dirty undercover missions too dangerous to entrust to standard law enforcement. When Nyx gets in over her head, she ends up in prison and is eventually released as a free agent, a mercenary for hire. When the Queen of Nasheen gives her a special mission that can set her and her team up for life, Nyx jumps at it...only to find herself trapped behind Chenjan lines unsure of who is the enemy and whom she can trust.

God's War is the opening volume - volley may be a better term - of The Bel Dame Apocrypha. This is an SF take on the New Weird, set on a planet well over 3,000 years in the future where the natives practice different forms of Islam that have evolved from the various present-day versions of the religion, but along very different lines. Nasheen is a matriarchy where women have the power and do everything from ruling to fighting (either on the front or in boxing rings). Chenja is a more conservative and repressive nation where women are kept firmly in the home and not allowed much in the way of freedom.

The New Weird elements creep in the form of technology. For reasons not really explained in this opening volume, the colonists on Umayma does not use traditional power sources. Instead everything from lights to weapons to computer consoles are powered by bugs of varying size and capability. Special types of people, 'magicians', can manipulate these bugs for offensive and defensive purposes, sometimes to devastating effect. Also, there's other people who can transform themselves into animals, somehow. This isn't really explained either, although one revelation suggests it's a form of long-forgotten genetic engineering.

Kameron Hurley is also not an author particularly interested in exposition or infodumping. The novel opens in media res and leaves the reader scrambling to keep up with what the hell is going on. Chapters alternate between Nyx, a bel dame assassin who later turns independent contractor, and Rhys, a Chenjan refugee and magician who reluctantly teams up with Nyx for protection from her racist countrymen (and women), as well as employment. There are occasional chapters from the POV of other members of Nyx's team, but for the most part the novel is a two-hander alternated between these two very different characters and their worldviews. Rhys and Nyx are studies in contrasts, with him being religious, a man of deep conviction and faith, whilst Nyx is all but an atheist with occasional forays into depression and nihilism, whose answer to most problems is violence. Oddly, they complement one another well and most of the setbacks they face come about when they are separated.

Hurley is balancing a huge number of issues and ideas in this novel: religion, politics, gender issues, war, science and morality all play their parts against the backdrop of a mystery thriller plot. Occasionally the book staggers under the weight of these elements and bogs down. There's a few too many times when our 'heroes' are betrayed, captured and interrogated before escaping/being rescued, like an unusually violent episode of mid-1970s Doctor Who. Hurley's prose is razor-sharp and intelligent, but sometimes bogs down in quieter moments between the action into repetitive character introspection, giving a somewhat stodgy feel to some passages.

But when God's War catches fire, it catches fire like petrol thrown on a bonfire. There's a fearsome mixture of violence, attitude, politics, religion and action at work here, resulting in the most caustic and driven SF debut novel since Altered Carbon. But whilst that novel didn't seem to know quite what to do with its attitude and drive beyond fuel a mildly diverting techno-thriller, Kameron directs her writing skills here in much more productive directions. This is an exhausting, nerve-shredding and vital novel.

God's War (****) is an action-packed, smart book which occasionally stutters in its pacing and is a bit too often just confusing. But it also brims with attitude and verve and represents the arrival of a refreshing new voice in SFF. It is available now in the UK and USA.

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Book 2: Infidel

 

Several years have passed since the devastating events of God's War. Most of Nyx's former team have taken refuge in regions distant from the ongoing war between Nasheen and Chenja, taking up new lives, starting families and trying to move on. Nyx herself is still working on the sly for the Queen of Nasheen. When Nasheen is rocked by a devastating attack on the capital city and it becomes clear that the bel dame assassins are fighting amongst themselves, Nyx is forced to travel across the continent to consult her former allies Khos and Rhys. But her arrival in their new lives has horrifying consequences.


Infidel is the second volume in The Bel Dame Apocrypha, following on from God's War and preceding Rapture. As with the first novel, it's a hard-arsed book fusing fantasy to science fiction by way of a whole lot of attitude and a lot more smarts. It's also the rare middle volume of a trilogy that builds and improves on God's War.

God's War was a great book, but one that ended up being a little too confusing for its own good, especially at the start. Infidel is much more coherently focused on its storytelling, building a parallel narrative contrasting Rhys's new, peaceful life in Tirhan with Nyx's ongoing life of mayhem. This structure worked well in God's War but is even better here, with the different locations and circumstances for the two characters allowing Hurley to even more strongly define them. The two strands are held separate for a large chunk of the book, building up tension so that when they come together the results are appropriately cataclysmic.


Hurley's writing is tighter than in the first book and also more empathetic, building up the new characters and relationships so that when the inevitable gut-wrenching betrayals and deaths come, they hurt. Infidel is a brutal book - more than the first volume - but one that earns its shocks rather than relying on them for a cheap emotional fix.

There are problems: the ending is extremely abrupt, an epic final confrontation over and done with in a blink of an eye. There's also the age-old trilogy situation of the first instalment being more or less stand-alone (in case it bombs) but the second volume being left wide open for the story to continue into a third book. Whether this is a bug or feature of trilogies is up for the reader to decide.

Infidel (****½) is an improvement over God's War, being tighter, more strongly characterised and with a better structure, whilst the 'bugpunk' weirdness is carried through and becomes even stranger. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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Book 3: Rapture

 

 

 

For centuries the nations of Nasheen and Chenja have fought a gruelling, deadlocked war. Millions on both sides have been killed by airbursts, poison gas and hostile swarms of insects. Now peace has come. Hundreds of thousands of young men and boys have returned home to the cities of Nasheen to find that their female rulers don't know what to do with them, but still expect them to obey. A movement for equality and representation is building, spearheaded by a mysterious figure. Retired bel dame Nyx is "persuaded" out of retirement to deal with the problem. Her mission will involve crossing a vast desert to unknown lands, a chance meeting with old friends and the final hope that she might find some peace at last.

The Bel Dame Apocrypha series has done increasingly interesting and original things with each volume. Overall, the series is a curious mix of fantasy and science fiction, set so far in the future that technology and magic have become indistinguishable and a "fallen" race of humans, divided internally by religion and ideology, must make use of them to survive on a hostile, only partially-terraformed planet. The SF elements work because they are subtle and kept in the background, and overall the "bugpunk" theme is sold because the author commits to it, making her weird concepts convincing due to how the characters treat them as ordinary.

God's War was an accomplished debut, benefiting from a razor-sharp sense of story but being a bit rough around the edges. Infidel was superior, a brutal (even traumatising) novel that was incredibly powerful but made you wonder if the author should be hauled before an international tribunal for the mistreatment of fictional characters. Rapture retreats a little from being that hardcore - although it's certainly not a happy novel - and instead shifts to being a more detailed and in-depth exploration of the world and history of Umayma and how it will develop going forwards.

It's a remarkable book, driven by anger and fury and burning intelligence. A lengthy crossing of a hostile desert made me draw comparisons with Mad Max: Fury Road (although Rapture predates that film by three years), not for the plot but for its sense of purpose. We learn more about the world and what's going on in remote areas, but the book remains focused on the characters and how they relate to one another. The final collapse of relationships long tottering on the edge is sad, but also inevitable and then horribly liberating, in a way that's true to life.

The book is mainly concerned with its own storyline, but finds time to wrap up long-standing plot threads from earlier volumes. Indeed, characters and arcs established in earlier volumes which felt a little disconnected from Nyx and her team are here tied into the main storyline with great skill. It's not a neat ending to the series - and there is at least one large dangling plot thread that potential sequels could pick up on - but it does bring about enough satisfying resolution to work if there is never another Bel Dame novel.

If the novel does have some weaknesses it might be that some of the desert sequences in the middle do drag on a long time when the book's finale (which involves crossing the entire continent) is squeezed into a few too few pages, feeling rushed to the edges of incoherence. But the author just about manages to carry it off, producing an ending that's epic, spectacular and wonderfully messy.

Rapture (****) is a readable, finely-characterised and highly imaginative novel, brimming with wit and attitude. It is available now in the UK and USA.

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