Jan. 25th, 2012

God's War is science fantasy after the Abercrombie model of fantasy: dark, gritty, grim, politically intelligent and without a single character we like or think is really at all competent.  As far as political intelligence in the novel goes, that too is tempered; whilst Hurley does indeed write about a world whose politics we can believe, the way she frames it (thinly-veiled Islam is evil and suppresses women! It's violent! Christianity is self-serving and violent and will enslave us all!) is deeply problematic in its simplicity, naivete and Islamophobia.

The plot is perhaps the strongest element of God's War; Hurley's novel doesn't have an original plot - bounty hunter versus bounty hunter versus bodyguarding bounty hunter, with the protagonist's dark and illegal past coming back to haunt them, and old allies and enemies popping up all over the place - but her handling of that (incredibly typical) plot is at least effective, as she takes us from moment to moment through the eyes of one of our various protagonists.  That those protagonists are a fractious, unlikeable bunch, unable to plan or anticipate and strangely blind at opportune moments, is an unfortunate point, but one worth noting; it demonstrates something that runs through Hurley's novel in her inability and/or refusal to write a competent character, and that does cause some problems for the plot.  Equally, the occasional moments of superhumanity (especially on Nyx's part) are rather ridiculous; after all, the amount she gets put through over the course of this novel, she should be many times dead by the end, but still manages not to be and to keep fighting, for reasons we don't understand.  However, the visceral writing really does bring some things back to us; whilst Hurley isn't good at writing a protagonist with mental impairments (drunkenness or high), she does write an incredibly good torture scene, or even simply a combat, which not only brings us into the action but shows us the blood and guts as they come spilling out, and the pain and emotionality as well as the speed and brutality of it.

The characters of God's War, then, aren't hypercompetent, or even competent (they fail more often than not - except when the plot demands otherwise, naturally); instead, Hurley has given us a set of unlikeable, odd characters who don't even really work as a group, despite the plot demanding such, and therefore a bit of a mess of a novel.  The thing about that mess is that it continues for 250-odd pages, and the dynamics of that mess just keep getting more ridiculous; time and again we see people acting out of character for reasons of plot, or just not really having a character.  Nyx is least guilty of this, as our protagonist; instead, she is simply someone who we can't really care about, because we have no reason to (she's not terribly effective, she's amoral, she has nothing she cares about, and she's somewhat of a violent sociopath).  God's War doesn't have likeable characters, it has a collection of people we need to follow to see what happens in the plot; and that makes it something of a slog to read, despite the action scenes (and occasionally, even those are a slog...)

Finally, a brief note on worldbuilding.  Hurley's obviously making the attempt to have God's War science fictional, especially with some of the reveals towards the end; but that would involve some plausible explanation for some of the things in the novel, which (and this is no bad thing - I rather enjoy fantasy and science fantasy, often more than classic SF) renders this science fantasy.  The problem comes with her science fantasy's politics; God's War has such contrived, strange and unbelievable politics (crossed with Islam, because religion at war with itself naturally brings Islam to mind, right?) added to problematic ideas of race (race, religion and nationality are inseparable in God's War... but only for the two nations at war, of course!) that make the world fall apart repeatedly, every time they're brought up or foregrounded; it's a really problematic world for me in that regard.

In the end, God's War has some brilliant ideas and some appalling politics, but whilst the gore and viscerality of the novel are excellent, it's deeply damaged by the messy plot and unpleasant, unlikeable characters.  Indeed, on similar grounds as my dislike of Abercrombie and Martin, I have to say that, based on this novel, I am not a fan of Hurley, either...

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