““I’d rather find a call box,” Nyx said.
“God does not answer the phone.”
There isn’t one person among us heavy users of Goodreads who doesn’t know the truth behind taking the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” literally. Now I have found incredible books by being attracted to their covers, but sometimes you miss out if that’s all you depend on. Take this book, for example. I don’t remember when or how I got it. It might have been back when I was religiously (no pun intended) making sure I took advantage of Barnes & Noble giving away a book every Friday or it might be from a Humble Bundle or something. Either way, I’d skipped over it because the cover and description made it look like it was going to end up being a Romeo and Juliet story. She’s from country X and he’s from country Y and they have to learn there’s something more important out there!
Instead what I ended up with was a crazy urban fantasy/thriller/sci fi mashup. Imagine a world out there in space somewhere founded by Muslims. Throw in 2 suns – causing those who DON’T cover up to end up with lots of skin cancer, something about the planet causing bugs to grow to giant sizes, some genetic engineering resulting in people who can shift into animal forms, and some almost Flintstones-like dependence on bugs to do almost all of what we do with technology nowadays. Then like all religious fanatic societies, it turns out that these dudes believe in this thing and those dudes believe in something ever so slightly differently and they have to go to war. (BTW – not saying all Muslim societies are fanatical, but this one IS founded by fanaticals and happens to be Muslim)
When the book starts, the two main countries Nasheen and Chenja have been fighting for hundreds of years in a never ending war. This has pretty drastic consequences for society. If you’ve studied history you know how part of the legacies of the world wars was Europe losing entire generations of men (particularly in WWI) to war. In America it was the catalyst that led to women having near-parity with men. Sure, some women had always worked in the past, but most didn’t because they had their husbands for that. Ms Hurley does an incredible job of world-building and showing how the constant lack of men has affected the two main countries very differently. In one, it leads to a society that essentially rejects everything you know about women in Muslim societies because there aren’t any men around to enforce things. They even end up with a matriarchy. The other country ends up doubling their efforts to keep women more stereotypically Muslim. Additionally, there ends up being a lot more lesbianism because that’s all there is if you don’t want to be masturbating all the time.
Into this interesting world, Ms Hurley has placed Nyxnissa. She is a contract killer and a smuggler who has a large support team to help her in her tasks. Eventually she’s given a contract to find someone important to the government who is alleged to be selling secrets that might cause the end of the war. Thus begins the thriller portion of the book as Nyx and her team try to get to her while avoiding and clashing with rival teams.
Just as in GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the best part of this book is that you never know who’s going to make it out alive. It starts off in James Bond mode with some major characters surviving battles they shouldn’t be able to survive, and I think that’s just Ms Hurley messing with our heads so we won’t later expect the perma-deaths. Nyx is told by one of the characters that there are no happy endings and that’s definitely true here. In a way, that makes this one of the most realistic depictions of both the after-effects and PTSD of unending war and black, underground work despite the fantastical elements. I feel as though everyone makes decisions that make sense given what we know about them and doesn’t just act with heroics because they’ll get out unscraped.
Also, awesomely, given my current track record – no rape. Maybe it’s because the book’s written by a woman, but she finds plenty of ways to mess with Nyx that don’t involve sexual assault. Refreshing after having read a few books in a row that saw that as the ultimate punishment for a woman. (Also, it wouldn’t really have made sense in the context of the story since it’s a world almost devoid of men) (Spoiler: Also, in a reversal of the trope, Nyx cuts off this guy’s penis since he cut off her ear to show her that she was just an object to him)