It’s pretty badass.
Equally as awesome is the opening line:
“Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.”
I was really looking forward to this book after reading an interview the author gave and reading a really positive review soon afterward, so my expectations were pretty high. And most of them were met.
The world inside this book is the most impressive thing about it. It’s well thought out, it makes logical sense, and it mixes a lot of disparate elements into a cohesive whole. In a time three thousand years into the future where humans have colonized a barely habitable planet named Umayma, two nations, Nasheen and Chenja, are at constant war with each other. Both practice a religion descended from today’s Islam and each understands submission to God very differently, and they have been engaged in a viciously bloody war for centuries, using both small and humongous bugs in a way that is both tech and magic. Some people have described this book as “bugpunk” and it is actually a really good description. If you dislike bugs even a little bit, you should not read this book, because they are everywhere, and they might kill you. The bakkies, the motor-like vehicles that run on organic bug matter, were really cool.
The social/political/religious situation was where it was really at. In some ways, Nasheen is really similar to the nation of Darre in N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The country has established a matriarchy with a ruling queen. All men are ordered to serve in the military to fight for their nation, and those who refuse or desert are hunted down and their heads are cut off by the bel dames, the country’s female, FBI-like assassins. Their work also consists of protecting the country against biological warfare in the form of gene pirates, who use various strand of DNA to create biological weapons of war. In Nasheen, it is the women who have all the political and social power, for better or for worse, and they never let the men forget it.
In the beginning of the story, Nyx is one such bel dame, but commits a crime so reprehensible to the bel dames that she is kicked out of their ranks. After she establishes her own bounty hunter agency, the queen sends her on a mission to find a person she says may be the key to ending the war. Nyx isn’t a likeable character, per se (probably the only potentially likeable character is Rhys), but what with the way she thinks, what she does, and how she gets through life considering the things she’s seen and done, you can’t help but pay attention to her. Because this takes place in a war and because most men barely make it to old age, it is the women, and not the men, who are strong, tough, and battle-scarred, because they’re the ones who are in charge of the fighting and running the country. They’re the ones with the drinking and drug problems, they’re the ones who are capable of killing and torturing enemies in a number of creative, unpleasant ways. And Nyx embodies all that – she used to be a bel dame. But as the book goes on, even she can’t deny that the war, the killing and violence is too much.
This book is definitely gritty and, strangely enough, it really works for me. Normally I dislike books advertised as gritty because too much of the time, people will use that as a code word for “lots of gratuitous violence, really crazy sex, and a plot and characters who I really couldn’t give a shit about”. And while the characters aren’t warm and fuzzy characters, they still feel like real people, all of whom are trying to stay alive in this hellhole of a world. Similarly, while there’s a ton of violence, a lot of it being very descriptive, none of it is unnecessary or overdone. And characters suffer from the violence. People have their limbs chopped off, they run away after having been shot and slashed multiple times, and they do it because there is no alternative. You either live or you die.
Like I said earlier, Rhys is the closest character there is that one might feel empathetic towards. He is pretty much the antithesis of Nyx – he’s a Chenjan runaway who’s tolerated in Nasheen for his mediocre skills as a magician (one who can manipulate bugs) but is hated because of his dark skin, which proclaims his nationality loud and clear to anyone who sees him. Furthermore, he’s a gentle person who hates violence and he’s deeply religious, as opposed to Nyx, who thinks it’s bullshit and knows and accepts that violence is how you get things done in this world. He’s the perfect foil to Nyx, and their growing relationship throughout the book made for great reading.
If I were to have any negatives, it would be that the author drops you into the story without any warning, and as such, you’re frantically trying to keep up with what’s going on and putting together what the surrounding situation is for the first couple of chapters, so it’s hard to get a good grasp on the story for a while. Also, the writing wasn’t always the easiest for me to read, there were times it didn’t flow that well. In addition, even though this wasn’t a book where you were supposed to fall in love with the characters, I still wanted to be able to do so. However, I recognize that as a personal bias and not a fault of the book itself.
Aside from those small issues, this book is terrific. It’s so cohesive, it packs everything together – plot, characters, world-building and all that it entails, back-story, cool bugs – in such a way that it all fits like a completed Rubik’s Cube. Furthermore, it’s an extremely intelligent book – the author was very deliberate in how she constructed the multiple societies living in Umayma, the gender relations, and the atmosphere and life of violence, and it really makes you think about how groups of people establish their various institutions and hegemonies. I haven’t seen very many people talking about it on the internet, which makes me sad, and I really hope it wins some kind of award, because it deserves it.
I’m on a really good streak, reading books that simultaneously make me think and give me hours of pleasure and entertainment. I love it when that happens.
Disclosure – library