... cutting women out was like cutting out a piece of yourself too. A society needed balance, Khos thought, but a society at balance was harder to control, and Umayma had been founded and built on the principles of control. You controlled the breeding, the sex, the death, the fucking blood that ran in your veins. [loc. 3859]I read this because it's on the 2014 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which I was discussing at Eastercon.
Umayma has been terraformed, and colonised for three thousand years, but is still only marginally habitable. The two suns blaze down on a heterogenous human population that has adapted to frequent skin cancers, stifling heat and giant bugs. The bugs, it must be said, serve a multitude of purposes: controlled by pheremone-producing 'magicians', they're used for energy, for communication, for processing. (It's unclear why 'traditional' technologies aren't in use.)
There are several nations on Umayma, two of which (Chenja and Nasheen) are engaged in a dirty chemical / biological war that has lasted for centuries. Nasheen is a matriarchy, where fourteen year old boys are sent off to the front: if they live to forty, they're allowed to come home. Chenja is considerably more conservative, where a woman's place is in the home. A Chenjan woman wouldn't dream of behaving like a Nasheenian -- especially not like Nyx, the protagonist of God's War, who is lewd, violent, and stubborn to a fault.
At the start of the novel Nyx is a bel dame, an authorised bounty hunter, but then an off-the-books job goes wrong, she's betrayed, and the bel dame Sisterhood casts her out. Fast-forward to Nyx's career as an unauthorised bounty hunter: she has a good team, including the Chenjan magician Rhys (the other protagonist), and Khos, a shape-shifter from Tirhan. At the behest of the Queen, Nyx and her crew hunt down a missing alien, a woman named Nikodem who may hold the secret to ending the war.
The plot of God's War is convoluted (and due to a freak Kindle accident I've lost my highlights): I won't discuss it further. It's the worldbuilding that fascinates me: Umayma has been colonised primarily by Islamic groups, but also by Christians and possibly Jews. One of the stated reasons for the presence of aliens on Umayma is 'they were very interested in finding other followers of the Kitab and its sister books. They have offered an exchange of technologies in the spirit of our shared faith' [loc. 1678]. A little later, they refer to the Umayman interpretation of 'the Kitab and its sister books' as 'exceeingly unique' [loc. 1720]. Nasheen and Chenja are both aspects of the same belief system, and Hurley does an excellent job of showing the pros and cons of both. Better still, this is not the main focus of the novel. Nor is the apparent gender inversion of Nasheen, where the women are dominant and the men (well, 'boys', presumably in the same sense that grown women are referred to as 'girls' in our own culture) who've avoided the draft are concubines or possessions. If the whole of Umayma was a matriarchy, it might count as reversal: but it's not, and the frequent conflicts between Nyx and Rhys (and to some extent Nyx and Khos) demonstrate the damage caused by the gender roles their cultures have imposed.
In summary: people argue a lot in this novel.
I'm most fascinated by the shifters, in particular Khos. Shapeshifting (which sounds much more gruesome than the average CGI depiction: the pictures are always better in prose) is a human mutation unique to Umayma. ('the First Families used to call them angels' [loc. 2696]) The aliens have spotted this too, though they're just as interested in the magicians. And while shifting is not the apparent focus of God's War, I'm keen to read the other books in the trilogy to discover whether it becomes a central concern.
I can't honestly say that I liked any of the characters in God's War, but I am drawn to Nyx's indomitable spirit and to Rhys' Secret Past. And yes, I want more Umayma.