PROS: Strong female characters; we get to see more and new areas of the unique world of Umayma.
CONS: Understanding the returning characters properly is highly dependent on reading the first novel; a weak and disappointing denouement.
VERDICT: A good-but-not-great return to the Blood, Bugs and Brutal Women of Kameron Hurley’s world.
The woman was groaning now.
“Bel dame, huh?” Nyx said and snorted. “Might be illegal to kill you…But a buck says you’re running a black note.”
She shoved the note into her pocket. She stood and grabbed the bel dame by the hair.”
“This’ll hurt,” Nyx said.
It took three whacks of Nyx’s sword to take off the bel dame’s head. Blood splattered her feet and swam in lazy rivulets down the alley. She tugged off the woman’s organic burnous and wrapped the head with it. The body shuddered.
Bloody —— bel dames, Nyx thought, and stumbled out the alley and across the next street.
The bounty hunter life of Nyxnissa has not gotten any easier. Six years after the events of God’s War, where she took a note from the Queen of Nasheen to find an rare, important and missing alien to the planet, former bel dame assassin turned bounty hunter Nyx is still doing jobs as she has for years. Sure, her team dissolved at the end of that op, but she has gotten new employees. Now, a bunch of bel dames look like they are looking to replace the queen with their own rule, and might have the means to do it. The Queen has a mission for Nyx to get to the bottom of this, and the offer that the Queen might be able to make Nyx a bel dame again is the tempting price. Sometimes, the best help for such a mission, especially when it goes wrong from the start, is from old friends, even if they might not consider you a friend anymore. If they are still good with their guns…what does it matter? There’s bloody work to be done, and the bel dames aren’t going to sit on their heels.
Many of the virtues of God’s War remain in Infidel. Hurley returns us to the vividly imagined world of Umayma. The bugpunk is back, and we even get hints on why the technology is insect-based. Mind you, like the first novel, there isn’t a heck of a lot of detail, but I appreciated the world building. We get to see new areas of the planet only hinted at in the first novel. There are some twists to that bugpunk technology, too. Hurley makes it clear that her planetary creation is NOT a “one biome planet”. In point of fact, the desert and desolate areas from the first novel and much of the second seem much, much safer in many ways than some of the new terrain we see in this book.
The female cast and milieu is top notch. In many fantasy novels, if there is a strong female character, she is an aberration, a one-off without any context or social stratum that she has come from. Infidel, like God’s War, is full of female characters in a world where strong female characters are not exactly hen’s teeth. This starts with Nyx and goes all the way across the book. Female characters who do not seem to be anything more than objects of pity turn out to have hidden depths and strengths they are willing to use. And of course, bel dames are by their nature exclusively women.
The other strong suit is bloody and well-drawn action scenes. They aren’t stylized set pieces; they are gruesome, bloody, realistic and vicious in nature. You feel the palpable omnipresence of violence on her world, and just how shocking it is to a relatively peaceful section of her planet when the violence comes to town. I’ve read few novels written by people not involved in the military who capture the visceral feel of combat as depicted here.
Readers of the first book will not be surprised to hear that Nyx, for all of her bel dame past and her bounty hunter reputation, is actually a terrible shot with a gun and does much better with other weapons and tactics. She’s not perfect. She doubts herself, but she doesn’t walk in the footsteps of Morgaine, Jirel of Joiry, or their ilk. She trail blazes.
As a sequel to God’s War, Infidel makes some effort to stand on its own, but it really cannot be successfully read except as a sequel to that earlier work. While intrepid readers unfamiliar with God’s War will have some early success in the book, once the novel starts introducing characters from the first novel other than Nyx, the novel depends too heavily on the reader understanding the relationships between the characters to make the social map of the latter portion of the novel work.
The book feels like a second novel. The raw promise and skill shown in God’s War is improved here a bit, but this time I could see the scaffolding and weaknesses a little more bluntly and clearly now. I was frankly extremely disappointed with the climax of the book, for example. It simply fizzles, and I re-read it a couple of times, trying to make sure I didn’t miss something important. The climax and reveal of God’s War were better done. In a reversal of the usual problem in genre fiction I think the few male characters aside from Rhys we see were not drawn and fleshed out as well as I would have liked. And even with Rhys, a personal subplot of his gets some work in the narrative and then abruptly dropped, even before his world goes all to hell. And his relationship with Nyx gets some development, but I would argue its nowhere near enough development, especially given that the two characters are the tentpole characters of the novel.
Books that I really want to work, and let me down, irk me far more than books I didn’t like where I went in with lower expectations. I think Infidel unfortunately fits into that former category. Another thought: just because a story may have a certain amount of truth to it, or it highlights an important truth or a neglected truth, does not automatically mean that it is a good story. Giving us a world where women are empowered, strong and important characters is good, but the story in the service of that truth needs work. That said, I do think the author has plenty of room in order to grow and develop to become a major writer in the genre.