A never-ending war rages on a far-off world. While battles rage at the front, hardened mercenaries and bloodthirsty assassins stalk the outskirts, doing the conflict's really dirty work: bounty hunting, kidnapping and murder. In the shadows, magicians manipulate a form of advanced biotech (now thought of as wizardry), perfecting their sinister arts in bloody ways. While two vast, implacable powers compete in unending war, most people focus only on the grubby mechanics of survival.
God's War's protagonist, Nyx, is a perfect example of the hardened mercenary. And as a former bloodthirsty assassin, Nyx is two science fictional archetypes in one. When a mysterious alien ambassador interferes in the planet's political scene, and then goes suddenly missing, Nyx is hired (blackmailed, really) into hunting her down. Nyx soon realises that no one, on either side, can be trusted.
That all forms an enticing package, and Ms. Hurley is no slouch when it comes to writing a convoluted plot and crafting explosive action scenes. But God's War goes an extra mile or two with its hard-boiled female protagonist and its non-Western setting.
Nyx is a woman, as are the other government-sponsored assassins, and virtually every authority figure around her. Men are cannon fodder: raised, sent to war and ground to pulp. Women, at least in Nyx's home nation, have assumed the control of society and taken over the reins. Nor are they in any hurry to release them. Similarly, the religious and linguistic aspects of society are carefully crafted to evoke the Islamic tradition, not the Christian. Although Ms. Hurley is careful never to mention the Qur'an or Muhammad (a point noted by Strange Horizons' Dan Hartland), the influences are clear.
That's all pretty great. But what pushes God's War even further towards the top of the pile? I'm not sure any of this matters.
Science fiction, as the "literature of ideas" (egad, I still hate that phrase) is often used as a sandbox for philosophical or anthropological ideas. What if our interplanetary colonies weren't founded by WASPS? What if every man died in battle? What if our reproductive organs were currency? There's no shortage of thoroughly-explored "what ifs" in science fiction, and, to some degree, Ms. Hurley is merely re-examining topics that have been already been thoroughly explored in prior generations of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.
God's War takes this for granted and doesn't rest on the laurels of its own progressive conceits. The protagonist is female, but, more importantly, she's strong, charismatic and as compellingly haunted as a Chandler detective. And the world isn't conceptually Judeo-Christian, but that shock pales in comparison to the first page of its immersive detail - it is dusty and atmospheric, with the Weird elements presented confidently and at a break-neck pace. A lesser book would have been proud of its underlying theses, but God's War doesn't settle. It marches on, realising the horrors of war, the pain of betrayal, the hurt of unrequited love and the nagging ache of the assassin's buried conscience.
The ostensibly ground-breaking, jaw-dropping ultra-progressive newness of God's War is important because it isn't important. God's War is remarkable not because it pushes the boundaries of science fiction, but because it is a novel in which those boundaries are already gone. [Jared]
From 16 January to 3 February, members of The Kitschies' judging panel will be discussing all of the 2011 finalists. Each review only reflects the view of that judge, and should not be taken as representative of the panel's collective opinion or final selection.