Review by Callum McSorley
Welcome to the Wild East! The border towns of Nasheen, near the front of a never-ending war with neighbouring Chenja, are lawless places home to smugglers, organ harvesters, and murderers. Nyx, a former soldier and elite government assassin turned renegade bounty hunter, is one of them.
First introduced to us by Kameron Hurley in her Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy, Nyx returns in a new book of collected novellas called Apocalypse Nyx. In this series of long short stories we follow her and her team of hardy losers as they scrape a living dangerously, collecting heads for petty cash. Employers are untrustworthy, ill-conceived plans go wrong from the get-go, and violence is usually the answer.
Apocalypse Nyx is a gory, sweary, action-packed adventure that rips along at top speed. Hurley drops the reader straight into her world – a matriarchal, Islam-inspired society where technology is reliant upon bugs and insects with magical properties – without any hand-holding, and the book is all the better for it. There’s no info-dumping or awkward exposition – characters don’t require things they should already know be explained to them for the benefit of the reader.
Disorientating at first, the reader is rewarded as they start to piece it all together. It really captures the experience of going to a new place for the first time, where the culture is utterly different from what you’re used to.
Hurley’s ‘bugpunk’ is a mish-mash of sci-fi/fantasy subgenres with magic, tech, shapeshifters, and witches coming together in a heady concoction that is mercifully not over-explained. Various insects can heal wounds, fuel trucks, and hack computer systems among other things. There’s not much detail on how or why this works and that’s probably for the best.
The ‘punk’ suffix, the go-to tag for almost any new subgenre, is refreshingly relevant here. Whether she’s describing a three-way or a firefight, Hurley’s prose is blunt, unvarnished, and full of stabbing sentence frags. Anti-hero Nyx is a heavy drinker and nihilist whose unremittingly bleak worldview alienates her from even those people closest to her – a will-they-won’t-they relationship with her team’s magician Rhys runs through every story but feels doomed. It seems Nyx – an atheist in a deeply religious world – is seeking death rather than redemption.
Charismatic as Nyx is, it’s Hurley’s world that steals the show. It’s a wild west frontier with the aesthetics of the east, all described in visceral detail. Minarets of mosques buried in sand and destroyed in air raids, rise from the ground, bathed in the light of two suns and the multi-coloured bursts of shelling. Along with the air raid sirens are the calls to prayer. Mosques, saloons, and witch’s operating theatres are stinking, war-torn, and decrepit.
Hurley takes a twisted glee in gross-out body horror. Putrefied bug-related wounds, rotting corpses, and people cobbled together from parts of others are common sights. Nyx herself has been almost completely rebuilt since fighting in the war.
Nasheen is matriarchal and queer – the majority of its inhabitants are bisexual. All men are sent to the front to fight for most of their lives or until they die, leaving women to run the country.
Men who appear in Nasheen are therefore hated for being deserters and cowards – it was formerly Nyx’s job to hunt such men down. There’s an interesting role-reversal at play which brings to mind Margaret Atwood’s famous quote: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” In Nasheen, the reverse is true:
“…That’s when Rhys started to run. He couldn’t say why he ran. He was conditioned to it, now. When women in Nasheen went after you, you ran until your legs gave out and your lungs burst.” (From ‘Crossroads at Jannah’.)
Hurley has fun with this reverse sexism – grown men are still referred to as ‘boys’ – while making a serious and timely point about equality in our own societies.
Choosing to set out these brand-new Nyx tales as a series of short stories, rather than threading them together as a novel, has its problems, especially if you begin the first story then immediately want to devour the rest of them one after the other, as most readers probably will. Because each one must be able to stand alone, it means going over familiar back story in each piece. Character introductions and descriptions become overly-familiar and repetitive. The same details are picked out time and again – every story at some point alludes to the razor-blades that Nyx hides in her sandals (she never uses them at any point, which seems like wasted seeding) – and you begin to see the formula to the plotting.
Plots usually revolve around a heist which is never quite as simple as it first appears to be and involves a level of violence that shocks everyone except Nyx, earning her the disgust of potential romantic partner Rhys. The longer stories, like ‘The Body Project’ and ‘The Heart is Eaten Last’, are the best examples but some of the shorter entries have rushed conclusions that leave the reader unsatisfied.
That said, the pros far outweigh the cons. Joining Nyx’s team to get dragged around deserts, acid lakes, and brothels, all the while getting shot at, poisoned, drunk, and verbally abused (by Nyx) is a must on any visit to Nasheen.