Bugs, Whiskey, and Bloody Bel Dames: Infidel by Kameron Hurley

The planet of Umayma, introduced by Kameron Hurley in her novel God’s War and revisited now in Infidel, is a pretty terrible place—blighted by pollution, roasted by a sun so intense that failing to cover up properly for a few hours all but guarantees skin cancer, and ravaged by a generations-long war between the two major powers of Nasheen and Chenja, a war that continues to decimate the male population of both nations. Nasheenian society is run by women, but no gentler for that—the queen is ruthless, and the bel dames, female government-funded assassins, are even more so. Despite the rigors, it’s a world of strange wonders as well. Light, power, and medicine are provided through the pheremone-based manipulation of insects by men and women known as magicians. Some people have the power to change their physical shape—into dogs or birds, or, it’s claimed, even stranger things. Organs are bought and sold like any other commodity—God’s War begins by offhandedly informing the reader that “Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.” And the powers of some magicians are strange indeed, and may even extend to the raising of the dead.

God’s War was part slow burn, part explosive action. Hurley took her time introducing us to the Islam-based cultures of Nasheen and Chenja, the world’s insect technology, and her characters: Nyx, a former bel dame turned bounty hunter; Rhys, a magician of mediocre skill and an escapee from the Chenjan army; and Nyx’s team of mercenaries, including a shapeshifter and the Nasheenian version of a hacker. Nyx, Rhys, and their team were quickly embroiled in a scheme involving off-world scientists (“gene pirates,” as they’re called in the novel, for reasons that quickly become obvious) and rogue bel dames, a scheme that could either end the Nasheen-Chenja war, or escalate it into something far more terrible. Though the buildup was slow, the main action was relentless, and in the end the novel was utterly compelling.

Infidel picks up six years after the end of God’s War, and one shouldn’t attempt to read it without having read the first book. At the end of God’s War, Nyx asked to be reinstated as a bel dame, but when Infidel starts, it’s clear that this request has gone nowhere. So she’s still working for hire—her extremely flexible job description (“Personal Security, Blood Bonds, Bounty Reclamation, & Bel Dame Consulting Services”) now includes babysitting the children of foreign ambassadors on shopping trips. She has a new team: a young shifter boy named Eshe and an ex-soldier named Suha, but no magician. Her former magician Rhys has settled down in the ostensibly neutral country of Tirhan, as have their former team members Khos and Inaya. But there is, of course, unfinished business for all four, involving the bel dame council and and their plans for a coup against the queen of Nasheen. And since the Tirhani government, for which Rhys now works, is a pawn in the scheme, it’s only a matter of time before Nyx has to go there and pay her old teammates a visit.

Hurley’s world-building, vivid and blissfully free of infodumps and expository lumps, was one of the great strengths of God’s War, and it’s a pleasure to return to the fascinating and messed-up world she created—one especially enjoyable for its ethnically diverse cast and freewheeling remixes of traditional gender roles. It’s also good to visit a new and intriguing location—Tirhan is, on the surface, a much more pleasant country than Nasheen or Chenja, with quiet, prosperous cities and lush flora. Of course, nothing is ever perfect, and especially not on Umayma; Tirhan also has some of the most contaminated zones on the planet, resulting in terrifying mutant bugs that can barely be controlled by the magicians. It may not be an entirely subtle way to illustrate the ways in which corruption can fester under an outwardly respectable surface, but it’s effective, and a genuinely interesting contrast to the harsher, dessicated environment of Nasheen.

Nyx’s rough company is also a joy to return to—assuming one likes her in the first place, which admittedly is not easy. She’s in bad shape throughout much of Infidel, her health declining (and not, as it turns out, simply due to hard living, although her drinking definitely isn’t helping), and any material gains she made in God’s War are long since gone. But she’s still fighting to survive, taking no nonsense from any authority, irreverent and tough as nails, and she secretly nurtures a soft spot for youngsters who need her help, like Eshe. Rhys still has an itch for adventure, despite being prosperous and happily married, and there’s no question that despite the intervening years and life changes, he and Nyx continue to be drawn to one another, no matter how much they both refuse to acknowledge it. 

Despite several scenes of high-intensity action—a grotesque attempted assassination, a massive bombing, and a vicious attack on two characters’ families—the story overall is a bit of a ramble, not quite as tightly paced as the latter half of God’s War, and the shifting alliances and schemes almost require a scorecard. Nyx herself sometimes doesn’t seem entirely clear on who she’s working for, although it’s probably fair to say that in the end, Nyx is working for Nyx, driven by an innate sense of hard justice that has no patience for anyone’s twisted politics, whether it’s Nasheen’s queen or rogue bel dames trying to cut deadly deals with Tirhan. 

The ending of Infidel is as open-ended as that of God’s War. But it’s clear that the status quo on Umayma is due an enormous shaking-up, particularly if the title of the next book in the series is any indication: Rapture. And one thing’s for certain: Nyx and Rhys are guaranteed to be at the center of it. 

(In the meantime, interested readers may want to check out the wiki created by Kameron Hurley for God’s War and Infidel.

Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, Texas, which this summer has reached Umayma levels of sun and heat. She can be found elsewhere on Twitter and Tumblr.


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