Infidel by Kameron Hurley
Reviewed by Sarah Frost
16 November 2011
One of the qualities that defines a good science fiction novel for me is whether or not it shows me something I've never seen before. By this measure, Infidel by Kameron Hurley is a complete success. In Infidel, Hurley takes the descendants of Islam five thousand years in the future. She puts them on the partially-terraformed planet of Umayma, where both the biosphere and the technology are dominated by bugs. Cars run on roaches. Messages are encoded on the backs of beetles. Humans who have innate control over the bugs are called magicians—and they are not the strangest people on Umayma.
Infidel is a sequel to God's War, in which Hurley introduced the world of Umayma and our heroine, Nyxnissa so Dasheem. Nyx is a bounty hunter and a gun-for-hire, but she used to be a bel dame—a holy assassin who tracked down deserters and brought their heads to the Queen. Nyxnissa took her vows to uphold the monarchy and the ancient laws of the caliphate with one hand on the prow of a derelict starship—but that was a long time ago. When the book opens, she's trying to kick her whiskey habit with the help of a flask of vodka. She and her new team are playing bodyguard for a diplomat's daughter. Nyx barely survives an encounter with a group of bel dames, ending up unconscious in an alley with a beheaded corpse. Then things start to go wrong.
The narrative in Infidel grabs the reader by the hair and drags them through the book. The pacing is superb. Moments that might have been boring are sharpened by the knowledge that something terrible is about to happen (something terrible is always about to happen). After a while, the moments when the tension explodes into actual violence feel like a relief. The action scenes in Infidel are chaotic enough to feel real without being confusing or dull. Most importantly, the characters emerge from their fights not just physically wounded, but also mentally scarred from being forced to witness such violence.
Even Nyxnissa isn't immune. She isn't a superwoman. Her old injuries slow her down. She can be hurt, and she can be killed. I would not say that Nyxnissa is unlikable, though some readers are going to stumble over her characterization. I found her to be a compellingly flawed protagonist. She is a woman raised by war, and she embodies much of what Hurley is trying to say about the way people are twisted by living in a state of constant war. Nyxnissa is arrogant and rude. She drinks too much, and compensates with drugs. She's smart enough to know that working alone is suicide, which means that when she screws up, she risks not only her own life but the lives of her teammates. She's some kind of patriot, but what exactly that means to her is an open question until the end of the book.
The other protagonists in Infidel are also deeply flawed. One of the most interesting is Inaya, the rogue shapeshifter, homemaker, and spy. She has spent her whole life trying to be a good woman, and circumstances have frustrated her at every turn. She never asked to be born a shapeshifter, and it wasn't her fault that her respectable husband died and left her unprotected among people who kill shapeshifters. She hates Nyxnissa and everything she stands for. Inaya is also a hard person to like, but her character arc is probably the strongest in the book.
Hurley does not flinch from the consequences of the violence she describes. One of the driving themes in Infidel is the effect that endless war has on society and on the individual. Infidel takes the reader to a nation that is far enough away from the front lines to appear peaceful—and then it pulls back the veil to reveal the price of peace for a country whose neighbors are locked in a centuries-long war. Similarly, Infidel shatters the illusion of peace for the characters who thought they got away from the war at the end of the first book.
The antagonists aren't as well-developed as our heroes. In retrospect, their schemes don't feel like enough to hang an entire novel on. The protagonists generate most of the drama between themselves, and the important conflicts (the ones that don't involve guns) revolve around where each character's loyalties lie. They are forced to make choices between their friends, their families, their countries, their religion. Hurley understands enough about human nature to make these choices painful. The characters act like real people, as quick to lie to themselves as to each other.
Readers should be warned that this is a very bloody book. There is torture, and mutilation, and lots and lots of bugs. The bug tech is deliciously gross and so well integrated into the world that it stops feeling weird after a few pages. The bug tech is also a clever device that allows the characters to have as much or as little technology as the narrative requires without the risk of generating glaring scientific inaccuracies. A reader who is willing to suspend their disbelief for hornets the size of dogs should have no trouble with the rest of the bug tech—provided that the reader is also comfortable with watching a swarm of locusts eat someone's face off.
The gender politics in Infidel are fascinating. Nyx's home country, Nasheen, has sent its entire population of men between the ages of fifteen and forty to the front lines. This has left women to fill in in for men in every imaginable social role, from the Queen right down to peddlers on the street. Nyxnissa herself, with her trousers and her sword, is a perfect example of this. Nevertheless, the national mythology of Nasheen still includes the idea that they are a devout Islamic country. In contrast, their slightly less war-torn neighbors still hold to what we Earthlings would recognize as traditional gender roles. Throughout the book, Hurley refuses to reduce people to merely women or merely men. The characters of Nyxnissa and Inaya are as different from one another as they are from men like Inaya's new husband. Their radically different ideas about what it means to be a woman cause friction between them, but that is not the defining aspect of either character nor the true source of their disagreement.
Readers who enjoyed God's War will not be disappointed by Infidel. Readers who have not read God's War should pick that one up first. Both books can stand on their own, but many of the interpersonal relationships that are set up in God's War find their payoffs in Infidel. Infidel is a fast-paced book with a lot of action and smart character moments, mixed with cynical battlefield philosophy. I highly recommend it.