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The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley

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Somewhere on the outer rim of the universe, a mass of decaying world-ships known as the Legion is traveling in the seams between the stars. For generations, a war for control of the Legion has been waged, with no clear resolution. As worlds continue to die, a desperate plan is put into motion.

Zan wakes with no memory, prisoner of a people who say they are her family. She is told she is their salvation – the only person capable of boarding the Mokshi, a world-ship with the power to leave the Legion. But Zan’s new family is not the only one desperate to gain control of the prized ship. Zan must choose sides in a genocidal campaign that will take her from the edges of the Legion’s gravity well to the very belly of the world. Zan will soon learn that she carries the seeds of the Legion’s destruction – and its possible salvation.
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I’m a big fan of Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha and enjoyed Mirror Empire, so when I heard that she had written a new, stand-alone piece of feminist science fiction, I was inevitably very ready to jump on board; thanks to the kind generosity of Penny Reeve at Angry Robot Books, I got to do that a little earlier than most of you…

The Stars Are Legion is in many ways the archetypical Kameron Hurley novel; angrily and unapologetically feminist, grimdark and brutal, and with some very odd biopunk things going on in the worldbuilding. We go in expecting those now, though, so their presence per se is almost not worth commenting on; instead, their specific manifestations are relevant.

The novel as a whole is quite a fast-paced read, powering through a lot of plot very quickly; at times this makes it very choppy, as time is disjointed and unclear (if this was intentional, it isn’t clear that was the case, rather than something approaching carelessness), and at times it founders on repetition of things that were covered earlier being driven home, especially if those things are relevant to the thematic underpinnings. That’s something of a habit for Hurley; this is less choppy in many ways than previous novels, and has a much better approach to concealed information, with Zan’s lost memory and the way Jayn, our other viewpoint character, talks about things feeling naturally avoidant rather than forced for plot reasons. The eventual resolution feels forced though, and doesn’t really fit with the tone of the rest of the novel; whether Hurley or her editors wanted it, The Stars Are Legion wraps up in a way that grinds harshly against what came before.

In terms of character, though, the tight focus of The Stars Are Legion means it’s one of Hurley’s most accomplished books so far. Having only Zan and Jayn as viewpoint characters means we really get into their heads very deeply, and having quite a small ancillary cast to those protagonists allows Hurley to paint them vividly through both interactions with the principals and with each other; across the novel we see a variety of different expressions of personhood accompanied by different responses to the weird world Hurley has constructed. It’s an impressive feat to achieve that kind of variety, and to draw out the characters so powerfully and individually; although Zan’s characterisation seems to falter at the end and her decisions come out of left field, rather than reading as a natural extension of her development up until that moment.

This is a dark novel; The Stars Are Legion, as mentioned above, is hardly out of line with the place in the grimdark movement that Hurley has carved for herself. The worldbuilding is incredibly biopunk-centred, and that means that not only do the sections involving violence towards other people have viscera and gore, but much of the travel does; this is also a book in which we see multiple births, although those are almost sanitised compared to much of the rest of the viscera Hurley provides. It’s an interesting contrast, then, to look at the birthing scenes in contrast with, say, violence done against other people; there’s much more focus on bodily fluids in the latter, much more on noises in the former.

The Stars Are Legion is an all-female novel, set in an all-female world; that leads Hurley to make some decisions which are… arguably problematic, especially for trans people. For a start, no trans people exist in this world; every human is a cis female born with a working womb, for reasons that become clear as the novel progresses, but they still all identify as women, as if there’s some other thing they’re identifying against, despite that clearly not being the case. Furthermore, in this world shorn of trans people, a sincere and deep wish of many trans women, for working womb transplants, is not only possible, but something that happens on multiple occasions; it’s not regular, but it’s clearly doable, which feels a little painful to this queer. However, the feminism of the novel is otherwise very strong, with the cast being clearly marked as not white (and whiteness being noted as an exceptional state in one character) and the approach to culture being to create it virtually wholesale.

In the end, then, while The Stars Are Legion isn’t a perfect novel on either aesthetic or political grounds, I think it is probably Hurley’s best work yet, and a brilliant piece of feminist science fiction.

DISCLAIMER: I am friends with Kameron Hurley and support her writing on Patreon. She has previously contributed two guest posts to this blog. I am also friends with Penny Reeve, publicist at Angry Robot Books, UK publishers of The Stars Are Legion. This review is based on a finished copy sent to me by the publisher.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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GUEST POST: Beyond He-Man & She-Ra: Writing Non-Binary Characters by Kameron Hurley

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Kameron Hurley, way back when this blog was a baby, was one of the authors willing to write a guest post for me; back then it was about having her debut series finally picked up in the UK. Now, with her fourth novel releasing tomorrow in the UK and the first in a new epic fantasy series, she is back on another of her awesome blog tours – and I highly recommend going through the whole thing, Kameron is such a phenomenal writer, who deserved both her fan-writing awards at the Hugos this year. This time, with an epic fantasy I simply raved about, which does so many interesting and nontraditional things while still embracing a highly traditionalist genre, Kameron is here to talk to us about one of those nontraditional things… her approach to gender. So, without any more suspense, I am honoured to present to you…
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Beyond He-Man & She-Ra: Writing Non-Binary Characters by Kameron Hurley

While browsing a flea market not long ago, I sat down to take a rest and found myself watching an old crossover episode of He-Man in which She-Ra makes her first appearance. I’m often amused by the sheer batshit crazy of the old 80’s Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and this one was just as wild as I remembered, with folks with swords flinging themselves between planets, people turning into birds, talking cats, and the transformation of our hero and heroine from regular old prince and princess to buff guy and hot gal.

It was in looking at that transformation – you pick up the sword and if you’re a guy, it gives you more rippling muscles, a loin cloth, and a tan, and you pick it up as a woman and you get longer hair and a shorter skirt – that amused me most (the fact that his mantra is “by the power Grayskull” and hers “for the honor of Grayskull” is equally amusing). Because here we were in this bizarro universe where cats could talk and women turned into cats, but men were still Men and women were still Women, and princes were princes and princesses were princesses.
It was as if the crazy, drug-infused imaginations of the cartoon writers hit a brick wall when it came to the acceptable presentation of gender of their characters. He-man needed to look strong, and She-ra needed to look hot. Forever and ever, amen.

I see this failure of imagination again and again in the fantasy and science fiction I read. Folks will go on for pages and pages about new worlds and the intricacies of far-future tax laws and terraforming, but at the end of the day, the men are Men and the women are Women and the only variety you see outside of explicitly feminist work is some aliens who have sex with everybody.

So when I sat down to write my new epic fantasy novel, The Mirror Empire, I decided I wanted to do better. I wanted to create societies I hadn’t seen before, especially not in fantasy. When I decided one of the primary societies in my world, called the Dhai, were a consent culture, it opened up a lot of interesting possibilities about how consent and autonomy and gender identity worked too. If it was impolite at best, and criminal at worse, to lay a hand upon another without consent, how did that society view one’s self-expression of gender? It made perfect sense that it would be the individual, not the society, who chose their own gender, and in Dhai, they had a few to choose from: female passive, female assertive, male passive, male assertive, and ungendered. It made sense that individuals could choose to use different pronouns according to how they self-identified throughout their lives, which meant that someone could, in theory, self-identify as all five genders over the course of their lifetime. It also means, of course, that the outward physical presentation of biological sex of any Dhai character cannot be determined merely by the pronoun I use for them in the book. To make things easier on readers, I made the decision to use only “she” and “he” without passive or assertive markers in this first book, making the gendering look simpler than it was to the casual reader. In the second book, Empire Ascendant, I introduce my first ungendered characters, whose pronouns are simply expressed as “they.”

The nomenclature I used: “passive” and “assertive” was also a bit of a reader shorthand. I have a lot of sympathy for readers tossed into the world of The Mirror Empire – I realize there’s an incredible amount of new and different stuff we’re not used to in it, as so many of us having grown up on endless iterations of Tolkien that perpetuate the same pseudo-medieval societies and mythology, but I really did work hard to simplify things here. Passive and assertive gender types, both male and female, do come with their own expected modes of dress and behavior, as does the neutral gender. But I wasn’t going to spend half the book going into the intricacies of that. In Dhai, assertive tends to have the more negative connotation, as they are those who seek to stand out, to stand apart; the freewheeling liberals out to buck the system. Those more passively gendered are the more conservative, the more reserved, adhering more to tradition – it has nothing to do with who wants to get into a fight or not, as violence is abhorred by all Dhai. As for the female/male associations with those assertive/passive choices, they are completely untethered to our notions of biologically prescribed sex; sexual expression is messy and complicated, and has never been binary. We constructed it that way to make it easier to put folks in boxes, and in Dhai they have many more boxes to choose from. But at every turn, I sought to handwave a lot of this as I wrote, making it as digestible as possible the first time through.

The Saiduan, too, the northern neighbors of the Dhai, have non-binary conceptions of gender, with a third gender, the ataisa, making an appearance throughout. I have two secondary characters in The Mirror Empire who use the pronoun ze/hir, which has become… immensely more complicated in book two now that one of them is a POV character. I used this third pronoun very subtly in the first book, knowing that the deeper folks got into the trilogy, the longer I had to get them used to it. By the time we get to our ataisa POV character I’m hoping folks will be used to it. As to how that particular gender marker in Saiduan expressed itself, or was chosen, I wanted them to have a single gender that meant “the between people,” so that if one wasn’t comfortable with the male or female gender, one would get bucketed into the third. The difference between the Dhai and Saiduan, though, was the consent of this – the society itself chose who became which gender, and though individuals could still insist on or fight against a particular identity, because the Saiduan were less egalitarian and not at all a consensual culture, it made more sense that one’s identity there, like our own in many places here, was thrust upon them.

Finally, not being content with six genders, I also have a character who identifies as none of them. Because as we’ve learned in our own messy culture, our categories and boxes for people will never be an entirely good fit for everyone. We tend to messily choose the about-right-sort-of-I-guess-approximate box to work ourselves into, and the fewer the boxes, the harder it is for us to squeeze into them. In the case of this particular character, they are also able to shift their physical expression of biological sex throughout the book, often shifting pronouns to match that expression, but not always, because why bother, when none of them fits anyway? This character’s struggle with their own gender, and trying to fit their physical expression of biological sex with their pronouns, and still being dissatisfied, knowing they only fit in the seams between things, as someone else, was one of the more heartbreaking characters for me to write. What happens, when the world built up around us does not even have a proper word for us?

Throughout the books, writing about characters of all sorts of genders, was fun for me, and I hope, will be fun for the reader, too. Because the truth is that when you write societies where gender and the physical presentation of a particular sex are divorced from one another you, as the reader, only know their gender. You don’t get caught up in what’s underneath their clothes because it simply doesn’t matter unless and until it matters to the story. I’ve heard a few people say that Dhai having five genders doesn’t matter at all, because it’s not made a big deal in the first book. Yet the politics infused in the five genders of Dhai was not a first-book task I was going to take on. Not yet. And don’t forget to go back over everything I’ve said here, reread some of those character descriptions, and start interrogating who has been explicitly said to have the gender and biological sexual expression you expected as you read the book… and whose was never mentioned at all, because it was no business of the story’s, as yet.

Perhaps it won’t matter, when we peel the world back and folks you assumed acted one way because of their gender were not, in fact, expressing that behavior for that reason at all, but simply because they are who they are. Our genders are not Dhai genders, or Saiduan genders, or even the violently feminine and passively masculine genders of the Dorinahs. How they express themselves, and how they expect to be treated when they present themselves, are far different than what we have here. But there is only so much a new reader will take before their head bursts and they throw away a book in confusion, and I get that. I’ve been very conscious of it throughout.

Whether I succeeded in luring in new readers this way, with this careful measuring out of just enough information but not too much, has yet to be seen. But for those hoping for more, I can say this:

Be patient, dear readers. Things are going to get much, much more interesting.
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If that amazing essay doesn’t make you immediately rush out and buy not only Mirror Empire but also God’s War (whose sequel I’ve reviewed) I honestly don’t know what will. This is unlikely to be knocked off the top of my Hugo slate for next year, and I can’t really praise it highly enough.

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Hugo Awards 2014 Thoughts

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I’ve previously talked about my thoughts on the Hugo nominees. Now that the Hugos have themselves been awarded, I feel it is worth talking about how those awards went. My initial thoughts, on the night and in the room, were rather too incoherent to transcribe other than sheer joy mingled with some slight disappointment; but with a few days distance, and with the statistics out, there are a few things worth noting.

First, the nominations game. Ancillary Justice, my favourite for Best Novel, not only got more nominations than anything on the ballot, it got exactly twice the nominations of the second-placed entry there; and more than the sole novel withdrawn from the ballot, too – Ann Leckie got more nominations for her debut novel than Neil Gaiman got for the novel he said may be his best. That, alongside the consistency of the sad puppies’ failure to get more than just their bloc onto the ballot, is the big story of the nomination figures – although individuals, such as Amal El-Mohtar of Goblin Fruit, also have reason to celebrate.

The awards themselves mark a new stage in science fiction fandom. The Not A Hugo award went to Sofia Samatar, a woman of colour of non-US origins, in no small part for a fantasy novel published by a small press that follows none of the established tropes of the genre and is simply a beautiful thing all its own, and an amazingly literary piece. That win is an applaud for the nontraditional, more interesting approach; while I’m disappointed the brilliant Max Gladstone didn’t do better, and hasn’t been appropriately recognised for his stunning body of work to date, Samatar’s win is one I am still more than happy to point to as what the genre thinks its next generation of writers should aspire to be.

The non-fiction, down-ballot awards tell a similar story. While largely same-old same-old, there was one name that came up time and time again; Kameron Hurley. Hurley is not only a nominee for a large number of fiction awards, she is also the first person to win a Best Related Work Hugo for a single blog post, and also won at least two more half-Hugos (Fan Writer, and Fanzine for Aidan Moher’s A Dribble of Ink as credited in Moher’s own speech). Hurley could not make it to LonCon, unfortunately, and sent in her place proxies with the kind of speeches the Hugos are said to have tried to avoid; Tricia Sullivan collected her award for Best Related Work while Kate Elliot collected the Best Fan Writer rocket. Each is a long-time inhabitant of the genre, outspokenly feminist, and perfect deliverers of the fiery white heat Hurley aimed at the conservatism and misogyny of the genre; from the stage she aimed a blast at all those who claim women can’t write, who try to silence women, who attack their work, their voices, their bodies and personalities. She has posted both speeches on her blog, and I strongly recommend you read them.

The fiction categories saw some more interesting things happen, too. John Chu’s short story rocket was a wonderful moment and a fantastic reward for an amazing story; a vindication of queer themes, racially diverse stories, and the use of not just dialect but straightforward non-English language in stories (‘The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere’ included dialogue in a dialect of Chinese, using the appropriate characters). That’s before we get to Chu’s tearful, amazing speech, in which he talked about the discouragement he got from numerous editors, always starting “I’m not racist, but…” or “I’m not homophobic, but…”; that the community has now rewarded him with a rocket is a well-deserved acclaim.

The novelette category was the one everyone was paying very close attention to, with Vox Day’s story vying for supremacy with Mary Robinette Kowal, Ted Chiang, and Aliette de Bodard. In the end, and predictably, Kowal won; not necessarily for the quality of her story, but rather because of the controversy over its disqualification last year on dubious grounds and the sympathy that the whole affair drew to Kowal. It’s undoubtedly a good story, but compared to the Chiang and the de Bodard it didn’t deserve to win; this ought not to have been Kowal’s year. On the other hand, the run offs tell us something else; that No Award does have a place. ‘Opera Vita Aeternae’ didn’t just lose the award, it placed bottom out of all the nominees, including No Award; a slap in the face to the toxic author who wrote it and his equally toxic fans.

We’ll brush over novella, where there’s not much to say, and move on to novel. Ancillary Justice was the clear, runaway winner, both in the voting statistics and the nomination statistics; a debut novel, a space opera with an interesting approach to gender and an inclusive attitude to sexuality, a critique of colonialism and imperialism… if it was fantasy, one might call it the anti-Hugo, and in a year with the full Wheel of Time nominated in the Novel category, everyone wanted Ancillary Justice to win but no one expected it to do so. That it did tells me a lot about the state of fandom; increasingly engaged in conversations around diversity, increasingly kicking back against the sad puppies rather than ignoring them or tacitly agreeing, increasingly willing to look at a wider variety of perspectives.

The Hugo Awards 2014, much as I am wary of saying it, give me reason to hope for our genre. They give me reason to hope for an increasing diversity, and widening discussions of what that means. They give me reason to hope for the slow death of homophobia, misogyny, ablism and ciscentricity amongst fans. And, most of all, they give me hope that people like Liz Bourke, Kameron Hurley and me represent the future of fandom, not Larry Correia, Vox Day and his ilk. Well done, fandom; give yourself a pat on the back.

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The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

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On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past. As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war, a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her Empress.

Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself.

One world will rise – and many will perish.
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Kameron Hurley is well established, at this stage, as a writer who pushes boundaries, who innovates, who embraces and applies new ideas and ways of doing things. The Mirror Empire, her first new book since finishing the Bel Dame Apocrypha in 2012, in some ways is less radical than that science fiction series; in other ways, however, it bears some of the hallmarks of Hurley’s mould-breaking brilliance.

If the blurb makes The Mirror Empire sound like a complicated novel, that’s because it is one. Despite the farmhand-to-powerhouse trope (subverted in that this time, it’s a girl; and again in that the other farmhand who becomes powerful knows he is the son of the ruler), and the slave-race (the daijin under the Saiduan and Dorinah powers are Dhai who, Hurley makes it very clear, have been broken to slavery as a people; the independent Dhai, once an imperial power, are now isolationist and pacifist vegetarians), The Mirror Empire introduces some fantastic new concepts into the realm of epic fantasy, not least the multiple-worlds interpretation of quantum physics.

As one character after another realises and exclaims, “We’re fighting ourselves.” The Mirror Empire is in a mirror-universe where the Dhai retained power; I didn’t pick up on this until a fifth of the way through the novel, myself. The central conflict of the novel, then, is between the mirror-Dhai trying to leave their world for the “prime” – and needing to wipe out all the Dhai in the “prime”, because they can’t cross between worlds if their double lives; and the various powers in the “prime” world (who, unlike the mirror-Dhai, are all morally complex powers, none of whom can be called outright evil), trying to defend their homes. However, the status of the Dhai as a once-empire, the Saiduan as those who overthrew them, and the Dorinah as a province of Saiduan that successfully won independence, means that those in the “prime” world are as prone to stabbing each other in the back as they are to defeating the mirror-Dhai. The plot weaves a complex knot that, at the end of The Mirror Empire, is made more complex by an unnecessary epilogue that, I think, would have made a better prologue to the next volume; as it is, Hurley leaves us with such a full, complicated plot that it’s clear she can take us through at least a trilogy in this world-breaking conflict.

The characters of The Mirror Empire are all surprisingly winning. From Akhio, the farmhand (well, ethics teacher at a farm) who becomes Kai after the death of his sister, whose unwillingness to rule doesn’t stop him trying to, through Roh’s affable enthusiastic teenage blundering about, to Zezili, raised in a matriarchy where men who are allowed to live are property and to be treated as such, who is half-Dhai but most famous for defeating that people, and Anavha, Zezili’s husband-slave, who has one of the most disturbing points of view in the book, as a victim of essentially domestic abuse; Hurley does an impressive job of writing rounded, interesting full characters, who have understandable and believable motivations for all their actions. Perhaps Lillia is the epitome of this; thrown from one world to another by her mother as a child to save her life, she is driven and motivated in an entirely believable way and incredibly well written.

This is also, it’s worth noting, a book as queer as the Bel Dame Apocrypha, if not queerer. The Mirror Empire‘s cultures all have multiple genders – three or five; and bisexuality is completely normalised and expected. The Dhai are a polyamorous society, where multiple-person marriages with all sorts of configurations of gender are shown without comment, and the men of Saiduan seem to be shared at their owner’s whims. Hurley has also included the Orlandoesque character of Taigan, who changes gender with the seasons; we see Taigan as both male and as an intersex individual in the novel, but presumably in future installments we’ll see her become female too. The one criticism I have is that Hurley only ever uses binary pronouns, which can be startling; someone who thinks of themselves as neither male or female will still be referred to as “he” or “she”, and I think The Mirror Empire might have benefited from greater use of Spivak or even invented pronouns.

There is so much more to this book than will fit in any reasonable length of review; but hopefully I’ve captured some of the glorious essence of The Mirror Empire, even without discussing the moon-based magic system, the “Winter is Coming”-style prophecies of doom, the various characters I’ve not even mentioned who are wonderfully rounded humans, the nuances of the different cultures, the different strands of plot and internecine infighting; Hurley has really come into her full strength with the start of the Worldbreaker Saga, which reads like an angry, feminist George R. R. Martin dropping acid and using steroids.

This novel has more substance to it than most entire series of fantasy with a pagecount less than many single volumes from those series, and I heartily recommend that you pick up a copy of The Mirror Empire when it is released in September.

DoI: This review was written based on an ARC sent by Angry Robot Books in response to a request for one. The novel will be released in early September, around which time I will reblog this review and post a guest-blog from Kameron Hurley.

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Infidel by Kameron Hurley

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The war may be over, but the battle’s just begun…

Nyx used to be an assassin, part of the sisterhood of the Bel Dames. Now she’s babysitting diplomats to make ends meet and longs for the days when killing was a lot more honourable.

So, when her former ‘sisters’ lead a coup against the government, she’s the perfect choice to stop them. But can one lone assassin stand a change against the elite?
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Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha has had an interesting publication history, some of which she discussed here. Infidel, the second installment (and the often-difficult middle book), was published at the start of this month. It’s also an interesting case study in the Queering the Genre product; the Bel Dame Apocrypha has queerness as the unmarked state, at least in one culture, but at the same time it’s only on one access of queerness…

Hurley’s pseudo-Islamic societies were first introduced in God’s War; one, Nasheen, is a matriarchy due to the meatgrinder of the war with Chenja, it’s patriarchal neighbour that is more immediately recognisable to Western eyes as a repressive Arabic state. Both present case studies of responses to the mass-slaughter of one gender, in the context of the same base religio-cultural imperatives; Chenja controls its women very strictly, enforces femininity, demands their subservience to men. Nasheen is run by women, controlled by women, policed by the Bel Dames – women trained to kill, nationalised bounty hunters who mainly go after traitors and male deserters. In all the societies of the Bel Dame Apocrypha, of which we see more in greater detail in Infidel than ever before, this rigidity and inflexibility of gender roles hold true, although the margins have different rules, and it is in the margins that Nyx exists. The place queerness exists is in the utter unremarkability of female homosexuality in Nasheen; the lack of men normalises it as a way to, as it were, scratch the sexual itch, and Hurley’s treatment of this as utterly unremarkable when writing Nashenians and utterly strange when writing Chenjans demonstrates the oddity of anti-homosexuality attitudes.

Of course, that’s largely side-story in Infidel, where it played some – although still not extensive – role in the plot of God’s War. Here, Hurley is writing much more of an intrigue, and somehow an even more grimdark one than God’s War; the brutal meatgrinder of war, the horrific damage of an internal civil war, the politics of those around a long-term war (Hurley’s absolute contempt for the Tirhani, an arms-dealing nation selling to both sides and trying to prolong the war because of it, is very clear). It’s a complex plot, but one Hurley pulls off; Nyx’s determination and the way she doggedly chases down the plot amongst the Bel Dames to overthrow the queen, and the way all sides use and abuse her, is fantastically executed. It’s a dark and strange plot, but Hurley carries off the twists and turns excellently.

It’s hard to assess the characters of Infidel, however, because they’re tied in, in a number of ways, to the events especially at the end of God’s War. Indeed, despite the six-year time gap between the two novels, Hurley’s characters are defined by the traumatic events at the end of the book; it’s excellent writing, and the ways that the effects of decisions and actions taken at the end of God’s War impact on the characters are well explained within the novel to allow new readers to jump into the series in book 2. Indeed, Infidel avoids the middle-book problem by being both a standalone novel that provides a satisfactory conclusion and is self-contained, but also drawing on the events and character development of God’s War.

I wouldn’t say Infidel is a book I’d have read for the Queering the Genre project if I’d known how little role it played going in; on the other hand, it is a fantastic, and very feminist book, and as a whole Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha so far are a fascinating case study in the normalisation of homosexuality.

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Guest Post: Kameron Hurley on Making Them Care

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I feel like I don’t really need to introduce Kameron Hurley to you, because the post below does it so well – after all, that’s what it’s about. However, because she won’t say this, I will; Kameron is one of the most interesting voices in the genre scene today, with God’s War presenting a unique science fictional world and a translation of grimdark through a feminist lens into a pseudo-Islamic matriarchal bugpunk society and being nominated for a number of awards including winning the Kitschies Golden Tentacle for 2011. She’s also a vital commenter on the state of the genre, with her blog this year earning her a nomination for Best Fanwriter in the Hugos to go with the Best Related Work nomination for her much-discussed, widely-quoted and essential essay We Have Always Fought.

On top of that she’s one of the loveliest people in science fiction… and yet, has only just debuted in the UK; God’s War, published in 2011 by Night Shade Books, was shortlisted for the Best Novel by both the the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the BSFA Award in 2014, and Infidel is released today in the UK from Del Rey. I asked her to write something for me on how that felt…
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Making Them Care: My Three Years As a Debut Novelist

“Who are you? Are you somebody?”

“I write books.”

“What’s your name again?”

“Kameron Hurley.”

“I’ve never heard of you.” 

Every time I have this conversation I’m reminded of the conversation that Kenneth Branagh’s character has with a Hollywood party-goer in the film Dead Again. When he says he doesn’t work in Hollywood, the party-goer flippantly waves her hand and goes, “If you aren’t in Hollywood, you aren’t anybody.”

These conversations invite me to justify my existence. They are challenges. Why should I pay attention to you? Why should I care?

And I always wondered… why did people want me to make them care so much? Why not just continue not caring and go on your merry way?

I’ve had various iterations of this conversation since my first book came out in 2011, and hordes more of them when I was just writing short stories. I’ll be having conversations like this for the rest of my life. At this point, I’ve won a couple of awards and have a Wikipedia entry (let me enjoy my 15 minutes!). But the vast majority of the world doesn’t know who I am and could really not care less.

Not until they ask me to make them care.

As with any creator, my primary purpose is to make good art. My secondary purpose is to connect that art to the folks who’d really enjoy it.

The second one is infinitely harder. 

When I sold UK rights to my first three books: God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, I actually worried it would be bad for the UK version to come out so far after the US ones. By the time God’s War came out in the UK, the other three books were already out in the US, and the original shine had worn off them. They weren’t new anymore, and as any debut novelist (or novelist over 40) can tell you, the media is most focused on the new, the young, and large money book contracts. If you don’t have any of that going for you, you’re completely on your own.

You have to find some other way to make them care.

It turns out the science fiction and fantasy field – the core community of editors, reviewers, publishers and hardcore readers– is actually pretty small. Maybe a few thousand people. Reaching those folks is a huge first step, yes, but stopping there means sales peter out. It means you’ve saturated that market, and it’s time to push out of the melee and see if things will get really interesting.

Launching God’s War in the UK was about wading into a whole new readership, and hoping they weren’t burned out on it the first time. Turns out plenty of folks who hadn’t been aware of the book before picked it up, and it was shortlisted for a BSFA Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Still, pushing sales took some… pushing, and it wasn’t until January of this year that things finally started to gain momentum.

I found myself telling old and new stories to new audiences. I wrote an extraordinary number of guest blog posts and interviews and responded to a lot of queries. I wrote a free tie-in novelette that went up on my publisher’s website. I pushed hard.

Because to all these new readers, I was nobody. I was the kid at the party with the flat Coke.

“What do you do?”

“I write books.”

“I’ve never heard of you.”

And you start again. And again.

Justify your existence. Why should I care?

I write marketing and advertising copy for a living, and that’s the first thing we ask about a potential audience we want to sell things to. What do they want? Why should they care?

For hardcore SF readers, the answer was easy – God’s War, Infidel and Rapture are books you haven’t read before. They’re in a world you’ve never seen before. They’re something different. To readers who churn through three or four books a week, finding something truly new is like a drug. It’s a shiny prize to hold up and pass around.

Outside voracious readers, you have to be more careful. These aren’t going to be people turned on by epic worldbuilding. Technology powered by bugs might sound off-putting.  But call it a noir thriller with bad-ass assassins, and you start to get some play.

The world is a big place, and your book is just one book. You’re just one author.  To every person you meet, you’re a debut novelist. Always a debut. Again and again.

Prove your existence. Why should I care? Over and over, until death.

I expect someone, on reading my obituary, will mutter, “Yes, that’s fine, but why should I care?”

The irony is that this question is also the same one a reader will ask on opening the first pages of your book. It’s what they’ll ask when they read, “Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.” Or, on paging through Infidel, “The smog in Mushtallah tasted of tar and ashes; it tasted like the war.”

What I’ve found is that the reason they care about Nyx is because they want to know what kind of a woman does that – cuts out her womb and leaves it in the desert – and they want to know why the air tastes like the war, and why is there a war, and how will it end?

We read because we’re curious. We have a desperate desire to know, to understand. To connect.

The secret is – we want to care.

We’re desperate to care about something, someone, anything.

The real prompt when someone says to me, “I’ve never heard of you” is not to make me dance and sing like a manic puppet. It’s because they want to care, whether they know it or not.

It’s hardwired into us, this yearning for social connections. For affection. For some connection to something outside of ourselves. As a storyteller, that’s what I strive to deliver – a closeness, an understanding, of a person far different than one’s self.

In real life, though, that desperate need that readers, all humans, have to care – about me, about my work – can be off-putting. It can be exhausting.

But I understand why they ask. Because if I can’t get them to care about me, about what I do, about why I do it, then how can they expect to care about my characters?

“Who are you? You’re nobody.”

I’m a storyteller. I’m a storypusher. I wrap up stories into blazing, glorious packages and I do the impossible.

I make you care.

Even when you think the whole world is shit and you’ll never care again.

I know what stories are. I know what I’m selling.

“Who are you?”

“I’m a storyteller.”

“Why haven’t I heard of you?”

“Just you wait.”