Fantasy that might fuel Islamophobia

Kameron Hurley

Gods War (Bel Dame Apocrypha Vol 1) Nightshade Books

There is a South African connection in Hurley’s book: the American writer spent time at University of KwaZulu-Natal and, perhaps as a result, the rackety road vehicles that transport people across the world of Umayma are called bakkies. They are powered, however, by engines full of insects. This has led to her work being labeled ‘bug-punk’ – and, indeed, the meticulously constructed tech/magic that employs pheromones to make insects swarm, secrete and sting as the basis for propulsion, protection and more, builds a fascinating world.

In Hurley’s world, holy war between two rival variants of a religion that name-checks many of the externals of Islam (mosques, muezzins, burqas) keeps women in subjection in Chenja on one side of the divide, and puts them in power on the other, Nasheen. The sides are united only in their hatred for homosexuality and shape-shifting. War has thrown up and maintained corrupt ruling classes on both sides (or perhaps vice-versa). In Nasheen, the book’s main protagonist, Nyx, started her career as a soldier and then state assassin, before getting busted for some lucrative side-work. In Chenja, the barely competent magician Rhys used his family’s high status to dodge war service, and defected when his father, in a fit of fanaticism, decided to sacrifice him on the front. Rhys ends up as Nyx’s tame magician and sidekick, with the frisson of attraction between them constantly complicated by his fastidious piety and patriarchal prejudices, and her polyamory and penchant for violence.

The book’s plot is that of a violent political thriller – shifter tech is being bought and sold to manipulate regimes and influence the balance of the conflict – and Hurley manages both the bullets and the betrayals with considerable brio, though they are too often weighed down by back-story. Despite that, the narrative is tense and genuinely gripping. However Nyx, disgraced veteran, haunted by the platoon lost under her command, leading a motley band of mercenary misfits, and drinking, drugging and fucking to dull the pain, is a staple of military fantasy and that feminine third-person pronoun alone is not quite enough to dilute the stereotype. More disturbing is the use of all that proto-islamic set-dressing and vocabulary.

The book’s righteous target is religion – any religion – used as a pretext for meaningless war and gender oppression. Tying that target so tightly to the recognizable externals of a single present-day faith – when there are so many patriarchal and militaristic religions around to choose from – feels lazy. It may not be intentionally islamophobic, but in the context of current geopolitics it certainly provides fuel for the fire.

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