The Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy, by Kameron Hurley

I’ve recently read Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dames series, starting with 2011’s “God’s War”, then “Infidel” and more recently, “Rapture”.

The main character, Nix, lives in what can best be described as a complete hellhole. The novels are set on a colony planet called Umayma, at some indeterminate point in the future (it’s been at least a few thousand years). It’s fair to say that Umayma is a world that’s lost its way – the terraform appears to have been bungled, the climate is awful and the introduced life has mutated in weird and dangerous ways. And then there’s the human population, who have added a whole extra layer of social fail on top of that…

Nix’s country, Nasheen, has been locked in a sort of World War 1 in Space with neighbouring Chenja for around three centuries. No-one seems to know, or really care, how the fighting started, although there is a religious dimension to the conflict. The war appears to have become an ends in of itself, and the violence has warped both societies. This is where Nix comes in – her profession is a bel dame, a government-sponsored hunter of traitors and deserters from the army. Or at least, it is her profession until she gets kicked out of the bel dames in the first book, for smuggling black market biotech. Later on, the Queen of Nasheen personally hands Nix a unique contract – to hunt down a missing off-world visitor, who may hold the key to ending the war. (The twist is that the queen wants the visitor back alive. That isn’t the service Nix usually provides.) However, the situation is more complicated than it looks and Nix finds herself faced with a plot that might just endanger the whole of her world.

What there is to like

Quite a lot, actually. Horrible as Umayma is, the world is well-defined and feels like a real place. The world building here is excellent. The insect-based technology of Umayma is also intriguing. The social and gender structures are intriguingly-unconventional. The characterisation is strong – for all her flaws, Nix is a person, and she keeps behaving like that person.

What is problematic

Umayma is not a happy world, and not a lot of happy things occur there. When something nice does happen, it usually means you’re being softened up for something especially horrible in a few pages’ time. If you’re uncomfortable with violence in fiction, this won’t be a series for you. (On a specific note, I felt that what happened to Rhys’s family in book 2 was a bit excessive.) Also, there is a lot of body horror in this series – Nix is the target for most of this, but organic squick happens to other characters as well.

Also, because the stories are presented from Nix’s viewpoint, some aspects of the world-building may seem hazy. From the way the two suns are described, Umayma appears to be in orbit around a red giant/white dwarf binary, and yes there’s a problem with hard UV coming off of the white dwarf. Umayma’s moons also appear to have a multi-decadal orbital period, presumably because the planet is far enough out from the twin suns that its Hill sphere is just that big. (This is probably workable, actually – the biozone for a red giant would be a long way out.)

We also never really get any sense of how Umayma relates to ‘deep’ human history – Earth is never mentioned, but it isn’t clear whether that’s because it’s completely forgotten or just because Nix has just never heard of it. (However, it is a plot point that other human societies exist in the galaxy, so presumably there is some sort of relationship.)

Summary

If you like noir and SF, then this is a series that will work for you. However, you do need to be fairly okay with violence in fiction. And also, you have to be able to accept the idea of social systems that aren’t carbon copies of the 1950s Western stereotype.

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