Friday, 12 December 2014

Infidel by Kameron Hurley / review by Tim Atkinson

There’s nothing this reviewer better enjoys than returning to an author and finding that they’ve upped their game. Compared to God’s War, Kameron Hurley’s still striking debut, its sequel Infidel is better in every respect.

While the former foundered a little under the weight of its baroque world-building, Infidel returns to the same setting to tell a story. And by revisiting much the same cast, building on what has gone before, Hurley shows that she can invest these characters with depth and moral complexity.

Infidel’s fictional universe resists easy categorisation: Hurley herself suggests bug-punk, which is at least pithier than grimdark-feminist-biotech-anti-clerical-planetary romance.

But try picturing a crapsack desert planet populated by bloody-minded Abrahamic monotheists: some matriarchal, nearly all of them homicidal. And then throw in the insects. Lots and lots of insects.

Once tools of terraforming, colonies of genetically engineered critters are now the basis of the planetary economy of the remote world of Umayma. Transport, medicine, architecture, war: all are powered by bugs manipulated by specially attuned “magicians”.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I like this idea.

While its treatment in Infidel is pretty much indistinguishable from magic, the concept is SF to the core, extrapolating boldly from the remote-controlled flies of today’s laboratories. And for me a real taste of otherness is a fair exchange for some authorial hand-waving.

Having done most of this scene-setting in God’s War, Hurley kicks the sequel off in media res and pushes onwards at a cracking rate, alternating between bloody action and murky intrigue. Our main point-of-view character is Nyx: bounty-hunter, former state-sponsored assassin and all-round toxic individual.

Starting out in the first book as not much more than forward momentum with occasional swearing, she has grown in the sequel to become a tragic protagonist. She is not a nice person by any definition: she murders, tortures and betrays to get her way. But Nyx is a self-aware monster; she doesn’t like what she’s become. She’s capable of radical selflessness in her dealings with her team. And she’s guided more than she admits by her own residual but strangely irreducible code of honour.

It’s her honour and loyalty to her country which led Nyx in Infidel to accept an offer to investigate the attempted regicide of her Queen by renegade assassins. In no time at all, she finds herself a barbarian in a foreign country, unexpectedly reunited with former team-mates, out of her depth, double-crossed and played.

All of this makes for a much better constructed plot than God’s War. Hurley still may be a little too prone to invoking the Coincidence Fairy to tie up the loose ends, but there’s a fine thriller underneath all the insectile trappings. And while I honestly still couldn’t tell you exactly what the antagonists actually wanted in the first book, here I don’t just know their aims, I could even empathise with them to some degree.

Despite being a giant leap forward for the author, the same things “bug” me about Infidel as its predecessor. Hurley has impeccable liberal credentials – as anyone who has read her blog will be aware – yet as Adam Roberts has pointed out in an otherwise positive review of God’s War, writing pseudo-Middle Eastern desert-dwellers intent on killing each other over religious differences is inherently open to problematic readings. And for all that faith is core to the world Hurley has created, there’s no sense of why it matters so vitally to its people or fuels global conflict.

Infidel may fall short of greatness, but it’s still a very good book. And it’s only her second, people, only her second! My hopes for Rapture, the third in this trilogy, are high indeed.

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