There’s a fine line between dark and compelling and horrifying and off-putting. When a story comes right up to the line without crossing it a certain dichotomy comes into existence whereby I want to look away and forget about it, but can’t. No author in recent memory walks this line better that Kameron Hurley whose second novel, Infidel, compliments that description perfectly.
Picking up some time after the end of God’s War, the centuries-long holy war between Nasheen and Chenja is taking its toll. Nyx is a bodyguard in Mustallah, the capital city of Nasheen,where shortages and rationing are causing the Queen to lose power and popularity. While protecting the daughter of a diplomat, Nyx is attacked by a group of assassins. She survives, but finds herself caught up in a whirl-wind of intrigue involving a plot against the monarchy. She has to figure out who’s trying to kill her, and the Queen, while avoiding the wrath of the person she’s trying to protect.
A continuation of Hurley’s brilliantly constructed characters, authentic and fully realized world building
Suffice to say the characters that survived God’s War are back in Infidel along with some new ones. There’s a significant jump in time between the two and Hurley does a solid job of filling in the details. Generally speaking, the narrative is much smoother, eschewing the choppiness and pacing issues that plagued God’s War in the early going. That, combined with a continuation of Hurley’s brilliantly constructed characters, authentic and fully realized world building, and pull no-punches style, makes Infidel not only a worthy addition to God’s War, but a wholesale improvement.
In my review of God’s War, I spent some time discussing Hurley’s use of gender roles. It’s significant, but I think it bears mentioning that Hurley is merely a recent addition in a long tradition of feminist science fiction. Look back at Pamela Sargent’s Earthseed, a novel written in 1983 that certainly contains a feminist-styled protagonist, or Joanna Russ and Ursula K. LeGuin’s genderless societies in The Female Man and The Left Hand of Darkness. What makes Hurley so unique is that she doesn’t merely alter gender roles or remove gender entirely or have a character rebel against gender roles. Instead, she argues vehemently against a division along gender lines. And she does so in a confrontational style that could be couched as the Malcolm X of feminist science fiction.
This begins and ends with Nyx, a female alcoholic small business owner. She wants intimacy yet can hardly bring herself to tolerate letting someone that close to her. She’s interested in men, but finds sex with women easier. She’s in love with someone who loathes her – chopping off people’s heads for a living will do that to a person’s reputation. Of course, she sort of loathes him too.
On top of all that, she’s the most capable person anyone is like to meet. She’s driven and committed to a fault – so much so that she’ll sacrifice anyone and anything to accomplish what she thinks she has to do. In truth, she’s a real shit head, and yet everyone around her is bent to her will. Hurley has written, what is in my mind, one of the most honest characters I’ve ever read – anywhere. And I haven’t even touched on Rhys, and Khos, and Inaya, all of whom are equally well drawn and make choices that challenge all the preconceived notions we have about how men and women behave.
Once again I’ve spent an undue amount of time talking about gender, and it’s a prominent theme within the novel, but it’s hardly the only one. There’s also very much a recognition that the human condition is based primarily on survival of the fittest. There’s a simultaneous confirmation that living by such a code is likely to leave a person alone, and all together isolated from those who orbit around her. Nyx is that person, contrasted by Rhys, a man who tries so hard to surround himself with love and acceptance. He fails, often gloriously, because he lacks the hard edges that Nyx projects so effortlessly.
There’s a lot to chew on in Infidel, and the Bel Dame Apocrypha as a whole. I admit, at times, it’s often difficult to take, particularly when Hurley executes a disembowelment of her reader’s emotional state. Despite all that, there’s a wonderful story layered above it, one with intrigue and violence and moments of tenderness all the more touching for their brevity.
Kameron Hurley is worth investing in.
Often, I find myself reading reviews for second novels before actually reading the first, to learn if it’s worth investing in an author. To everyone who reads this – Kameron Hurley is worth investing in. I say that with the confidence that comes from having read God’s War, critiqued it, read Infidel, and witnessed her growth as a writer while maintaining the bleeding edge that permeates every sentence she writes.
If you haven’t started reading the Bel Dame Apocrypha, what are you waiting for?