Bel Dame Apocrypha

Serious as a fucking heart attack, Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha books (God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture) are a bold, brutal sojourn through blood-soaked streets, war-torn countries, and the battered maps of her characters’ lives, bodies and proverbial souls. And ladies and gents, this series is a god-damned masterpiece.

Set on the (incompletely) re-engineered planet Umayma, Hurley’s science fiction trilogy (with some framework and structural elements borrowed from fantasy, including many of the worldbuilding aspects) is about broken people, broken countries, a multi-centuries-long war, the military-industrial complex that has grown up around that war, political intrigue (ranging in various forms and intersecting plots and machinations that interweave over the course of the three books), the realities of race-relations, state-wide persecution of perceived aberrations (shapeshifters), bug-derived biotechnology, magicians reliant on the mutant bug strains littering the half-formed world, a desert world slowly working to reclaim itself from an invasive species (humans), religious ideology and religious fanaticism, and millennia-old machinations still at work in the world that Hurley rolls out in slow reveal over the course of the series. And at this story’s heart is one woman: Nyx (nissa so Dasheem).

Make no mistake, all three books use roving perspectives to excellent effect, giving all of the central and secondary characters fully three-dimensional roles in the books, especially Rhys, and from book two on Inaya as well. And that is due to Hurley’s willingness to craft a three-book arc that takes place over nearly a score of years, allowing all of the characters (those who survive from book to book) to experience personal growth and highly realistic development over the course of the trilogy, reinventing themselves as the world shifts under their feet.

But the story belongs absolutely, and unequivocally, to Nyx, and it is her arc over the three books that supports a sprawling series of plots interwoven into a thickly braided throughline. Beginning as a Bel Dame (an organization of assassins in service, ostensibly, to the queen of Nasheen), it is Nyx’s fall from grace, her reshaping, and continual, relentlessly bloody, struggle to carve out a place for herself in the world—against the backdrop of the ongoing, world-consuming war (or so we think because once Hurley starts peeling back the layers the story gets frighteningly bigger than the war at its heart) between Nasheen and Chenja—that shapes, as much as Nyx is shaped by, the story Hurley has opted to tell. And sweet fucking hell is that story dark.

Like all convoluted intrigues everything begins simply enough: Nasheen and Chenja are variant Islamic states who have been at war for centuries. Nasheen is matriarchal, the majority of its men fighting at the front while the cities of Nasheen are encased in organic filters to keep out the mutant bugs roaming the deserts outside its borders and the contaminants and engineered plagues the war has unleashed, the country powering along under a queen, her council, and the Bel Dames who support their monarch’s rule at the point of a blade and the barrel of a gun. Less zealous in its religious stance, Nasheen is diametrically opposed in state and nature to Chenja, a country ruled by a patriarchal Islamic theocracy still practicing the subjugation of women and strict observance to its beliefs. And though Chenja is not painted as intricately as Nasheen over the three books, neither country is depicted in two-dimensional terms. The cause for the war itself is considered far less important than the fact that the war is ongoing, neither side particularly believing there’s an end in sight, as the front constantly shifts, with border towns passed back and forth between two bloody hands. Add to this mix the countries of Tirhan, Ras Tieg, Mhoria, and Druce, all nations peopled by depictions of religious faiths by turns evangelical, purist, or otherwise orthodox, all playing variable roles in the ongoing war, some as third-party military suppliers (working both sides of the war), others aiding one side or the other or simply staying out of the conflict entirely.

After Nyx loses her status as a Bel Dame, is imprisoned, then released after serving her sentence and has begun her new life as a bounty hunter, into this mix comes an alien ship full of gene pirates (a black market problem Umayma, with its rampant bio-engineering programs in different nations, is already dealing unsuccessfully with) in an age after the denizens of Umayma have lost the technology to shoot newcomers out of the sky. Because of her lack of affiliation, and therefore her expendable status, Nyx is, when a member of the alien delegation goes missing, the perfect person to hunt her down. Except that the delegate’s disappearance isn’t what it appears, and it will lead Nyx and her team into older schemes and the underbelly of the world, through plans to end the war, and the madness entailed therein. By the time this arc ends, Byzantine plotting has come to light, old machinations are again beginning to bear fruit, and all the inhabitants of the world Hurley has built are still cracking under the strain of just trying to survive for one more day.

And that would be book one.

The story gets only wider, and more convoluted from there. And, I’ll be honest, there’s simply no way I’m going to do credit to Hurley’s brilliant, deeply fucked up worldbuilding by dissecting each book individually. Not least of all because such an exegesis would require a full book of its own to examine all the layering Hurley has done across the three books, all the minute characterizations, the socio-political extrapolations in miniature, and the beautifully crafted structure underlying the text that I have been picking apart piece by latticed piece as I worked my way through the series. But also because Hurley’s trilogy is a staggering feat of incredibly complex worldbuilding that only deepens with each successive volume as Hurley unveils more of the intricate, fully-formed world she has crafted.

And part and parcel of that worldbuilding, and one of the things that sets these books apart from much science fiction and fantasy—even those others that share the Bel Dame Apocaypha’s darker edge—is Hurley’s choice of endings for each of the books. These endings are neither joyous nor tragic in their individual closes, though tragedy certainly dogs all of the characters through the arc of the three stories that form the overarching course of the series. But each book ends on the understanding that things change, not end; that our hopes for the kind of life we imagine we could have if only things were a little different, if only others would bend a little more, are frustrated because people are whole and fully realized individuals comprised of the wounds of their past, and no matter how much you want them to be something else they are only and ever themselves, and every perceived ending, communal or solitary, is just another stop on a long road, no matter what particular stretch of that long haul we find the story and the characters on at the end of each book.

It is with no little sincerity that I say I am deeply fond of all the concluding passages of Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha books: they’re perfect conclusions for the stages of the story she’s telling. But there is an especially bizarre sense of satisfaction in where Hurley chooses to leave the third book at its close. Surprisingly fulfilling, it is closure on the life of the character at its heart, Nyx, even though it’s not really closure at all. Because what Hurley suggests with the close of the third book is that no matter how much you think you know her characters, no matter how much you have watched them suffer, no matter how long it’s taken you to realize that there is a perverse nobility in their being the ones who will sacrifice everything, and everyone, to keep the world from cracking apart and swallowing everything whole, no matter how much those characters deny themselves so everyone else can have something, you don’t get to have the whole of their lives. What comes after, and Hurley lets you decide for yourself what comes after for the three main characters around whom the story revolves, but especially Nyx, occurs off screen. And that’s all you get.

There is blood, and bone, and raw marrow evident in Hurley’s writing, with a lot of the blood on the page her own. Hurley speaks unabashedly about the circumstances under which God’s War was written in various places, perhaps most succinctly in the opening paragraph of her acknowledgements in same: “I wrote most of this book during the year I was dying.”

Small wonder then that the Bel Dame Apocrypha burns with the immediacy and urgency of death’s long shadow looming. Brutal, graphic, beautiful as a red dawn clawing its way into the sky, this series is SF (with some Fantasy underpinnings) at its finest. And if you have a strong stomach (for body horror and unflinching depictions of war and very real, very realistically depicted violence galore) you absolutely should pick these up.

Part of me wishes this series had been longer, but it can’t be denied that Hurley’s trilogy finishes on the absolute right note. Indeed, each book has finished on the proper tone for its portion of the (long) arc, as discussed above, and it’s a rare series that does not have miscalculated beats/rhythm/tensions somewhere along the way. But Hurley has somehow managed to juggle the Herculean task of making all three books unique and keeping them perfectly paced, fitting them all within the (expansive) larger world she has established, and still make the stories dark as hell and deliriously, dizzyingly wonderful.

This is the high bar for fiction, Hurley’s bone-lean, sometimes poetic, ofttimes brutally blunt prose and careful worldbuilding standing alongside the works of master stylists like Caitlin Kiernan, Catherynne M. Valente, and Gemma Files in quality of writing and sprawling vision.

If you haven’t already bought these books, what the fuck are you waiting for?

God’s War by Kameron Hurley,
ISBN: 978-1-59780-214-7,
Night Shade Books,
January 2011

About the Author

Michael Matheson

Michael Matheson PortraitMichael Matheson is a writer, editor, and book reviewer based in Toronto. He is also a submissions editor for Apex Magazine, and has been nominated for the Aurora Award a couple of times (in different capacities). His fiction is published or forthcoming in Ideomancer, and the anthologies Future Lovecraft, Dead North, and Chilling Tales 2, among others. Find out more at his website, A Dark and Terrible Beauty.