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“You hate everything I am,” Nyx said softly. “But you’re still out here with me. Is that it?” … “Is it that you have to take care of her out there? But out here–” she carefully moved her hands to his neck, lightly, as if by accident. It was freeing, really. She figured they’d all be dead by morning. “Out here I take care of you.”

It’s putting it mildly to say that I have strong opinions about Nyxnissa so Dasheem, the protagonist of Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocraphya trilogy. In an interview with Liz Bourke Hurley said that ‘at some level, Nyx acknowledges that she’s monstrous. And so do the people around her.’ I have a hard time leaving monstrous ladies alone. Without fail, I want more time with these characters than their stories want to provide. Finding a trilogy where I could spend hours basking in the SFF story of a tough, tired, morally compromised woman was a great literary gift.

When Renay, Philip and I recorded our podcast about "God’s War", the first book in Hurley’s trilogy, we talked a lot about whether Nyx truly is a monster. We wondered why people tend to stay loyal to Nyx when she’s quick to put her team in danger if it suits her needs. I suggested that Nyx generally looks like the best bad option. Many of her team can’t hope to survive on their own and don’t have anywhere else to go. When her team mount a rescue mission in "God’s War" they brave a lesser danger than Nyx and secure their own safety by rescuing her. It’s a cynical, risky and not particularly well-planned strategy, but it’s also morbidly practical in the long run. And that just shows how much they’ve picked up from Nyx.

After finishing the trilogy, I’m still preoccupied with the idea of Nyx as the best bad option. For characters like Rhys and Khos, the decision to stick with Nyx throughout "God’s War" stems at least in part from self-interest. Rhys subconsciously seeks a human shield after running from the front and being assaulted in Nasheen. He also needs a paying job to survive. Khos can’t go home and, as we learn over the course of the trilogy, he just isn’t cut out for the rebel life he leads in the city. Nyx may be willing to abandon people if necessary, but she and her work provide a temporary safety that these lone, foreign men can’t hope to find anywhere else in the female run city. Nyx’s indifference comes with food and pay, which is provided by a woman who is oh so good at killing dangerous people. Nasheen’s indifference look’s much more bare and frightening in comparison.

Characters attach themselves to Nyx because, despite her indifference to their survival, they can shelter behind her. Nyx is the weapon that shields – the strongest offence in the world. Being with her is like standing behind a flamethrower they can’t entirely control.

It’s no coincidence that throughout the trilogy, Nyx finds herself in charge when it’s time to make the nastiest of decisions. She’s physically strong, bloody minded and possesses a dogged, self-flagellating determination. Even if Nyx doesn’t always have the skill, strength or resources to pull off flawless plans she keeps going until a situation turns to her advantage. Well practised at judging herself since she ran from the front, she adds the responsibility for each horrifying decision to her list of penances and keeps going forward. She’s the perfect patsy when other characters want to abdicate responsibility. For example, in "Rapture" her team staggers on though the desert without any water. Nyx is the one filling water bulbs with human blood so her people don’t die of dehydration before they can finish the job. And it’s Nyx who makes the terrible decision to let Eshe’s corpse reanimate and provide a distraction so they can complete their mission. Without Nyx they would have all died protecting their souls.

It seems Nyx’s various teams rely on her being a monster. Monsters survive. If you’re useful to them they’ll protect you. Throughout the trilogy, various people cross their fingers and try to follow in Nyx’s survival slipstream. They know their current safety can be blown away by the wind, and they gamble on other team members becoming collateral damage before them. Their motivations aren’t pretty, but with Nyx around filling water bulbs with human blood they can minimise their own crimes.

It seems that standing with Nyx is all one big, desperate roll of the dice. And when the gunfire ends people do not appreciate being forced to look at the true face of the woman they bet on. Any character who thanks Nyx must acknowledge that they’re glad she did so many horrifying things. Rhys in particular is spectacularly bad at allowing Nyx any humanity. It’s impossible for him to thank or embrace Nyx without admitting that he is relieved she chose him as her favourite; that he is glad others died instead of him. Most characters find it difficult to accept Nyx’s acts when they are safe and so they fall upon her, adding to the pain and litany of judgement she already rains upon herself. Tellingly, few take the lead from her even when they disagree with her actions.

In this context, it’s fascinating to see Rhys evolve throughout the series and begin to take responsibility for directing his own fate. Rhys’ reliance on Nyx is actually one of my favourite hurt-comfort elements of the series because it subverts gender roles and is painfully emotional to watch. However, when Rhys says, ‘…I don’t have to be strong when I’m with you.’ it felt like a necessary revelation. He needs to stop running and stand on his own to grow, which he won’t be able to do while Nyx is around. Letting her protect him is too attractive, and being with Nyx makes it too easy to ‘…uphold the barest level of decency and look like the son of the prophet by contrast.’ Figures I’d pick a doomed ship to put my money on.

And then there’s Inaya. In "Infidel" Nyx is essentially dead and it’s Inaya who makes people search for her body so a magician can rebuild her. While Inaya still feels a lot of anger towards Nyx, Inaya acknowledges her own need for a woman who will kill with no compunction. And she makes the active decision to resurrect this dangerous power. I love when Inaya puts herself in charge and stops ‘pretending to be weak’ as Nyx later puts it.

In "Rapture", Inaya blossomed into one of my favourite characters partly because she used Nyx’s example to galvanise herself, and stopped using Nyx as a shield. Inaya has becomes the head of a shifter liberation force and is well practised at making her own life or death decisions. She frequently wonders what Nyx would do and then works out her own plans. She carves out a life on her own terms. After she is betrayed she comes back to enact vengeance and save the world. By the end of the trilogy, Inaya is what Nyx might have been without the front – bold, dangerous, powerful and capable of saving the world without all the self-loathing.

Of course, it’s not always gloomy practicality that draws people to Nyx. A mix of respect, genuinely loyalty, attraction and love influence other characters to stand with her to the end. Anneke is her friend and she provides Nyx with a home despite the danger she might bring (as long as Nyx sets up a serious contingency plan). Nyx’s relationships with Suha and Khatijar seem to be born out of genuine respect. Eshe is almost family.

I won’t even begin to try and talk about where Rhys’ need for a safe haven crosses into love and how love can be built out of so much despair. We would be here for days. Uh, Rhys - I have so many feels about you.

Typically, characters that make hard and bloody decisions are validated as heroes. James Bond, Jack Bauer and so many of the famous rogue weapons of government justification are framed as men who do dirty but necessary jobs for the greater good. You may not like them, their narratives say, but you’ve got to respect them - they’re the reason the world you love goes on unharmed. Nyx could easily have been presented as such a character too – a hard ass who the narrative backs to the hilt. Ultimately though, Hurley produces a much more interesting narrative experience by building her books from fantastically well chosen details and including several perspectives which round out the text. Nyx is judged by those around her, but her own judgement of herself is also open to the reader. Seeing Nyx try to work out who she really is allows the reader to empathise with her. At the same time, the reader sees how bloody that truth is and how the destruction around her impacts other characters. This means that readerly empathy doesn’t automatically lead to readerly forgiveness or gain Nyx an easy moral pass for her actions.

One of the things I loved about the trilogy was that the text showed readers a fuller picture of Nyx than many of the characters could easily gain. Readers can get inside her head while the characters can’t. It’s particularly interesting to hear about Nyx’s mental and physical pain. Her physicality defines the book, doing much to set the weary but powerful tone. There is so much about Nyx to empathise with, and even to admire, when you see just how much effort it takes for her to choose to get up again and again. She can’t share this pain with various teams because they need her to be indestructible; ‘the muscle’. She needs them to believe in her strength when they’re walking through a dangerous plan, even if it’s an open secret that they doubt her ability.

However, the book cleverly allows you to compartmentalise her actions and her feelings so that horror and wonder are kept in balance. And this balance keeps readers from having to make any final judgements. The reader’s textual access to her mind allows them to do what few characters can do – respond to Nyx without any need to pass judgement or offer absolution.

After being repeatedly thrown back towards her during the trilogy, both Inaya and Rhys finally separate from Nyx at the end of "Rapture". I was emotionally hit by Hurley’s decision to separate them all, but it also felt like the right decision for the characters. Inaya and Rhys needed to cut links with Nyx in order to start anew. And I liked that this separation was all about their growth, not about leaving Nyx behind as some kind of punishment for her behaviour. Nyx has grown; she loves a woman and she lets herself cares about people even though she knows it’s dangerous. At the same time, she’s willing to give these people up for their own safety. This shows a huge change considering what she unleashes by reconnecting with Khos and Rhys in Infidel. Nyx may still judge herself, and she may commit acts that repulse readers, but at the end of the trilogy she’s worthy of more than a moral ending about how monsters don’t deserve love

The Bel Dame Apocraphya trilogy - It. Was. Epic. I and the BSFA shortlist suggest you get on it now.

Supplemental Materials

SFF in Conversation: Kameron Hurley on A Complexity of Desires: Expectation of Sex & Sexuality in Science Fiction
The first three chapters of "God’s War", "Infidel" and "Rapture"
Free Short Fiction from the "God’s War" Universe
Sleeps with Monsters: Kameron Hurley Answers Six Questions
Lady Business+ - Episode #1: God’s War

Date: 2014-06-20 07:28 am (UTC)
kingrat: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kingrat
I really need to read Infidel. IIRC, Inaya was the character i wanted to see more of.


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