4th December 2011 04:17 PM Ian Sales Infidel, Kameron Hurley Night Shade Books, 376pp, $14.99 Nyxnissa, the ex-bel dame, was introduced in God’s War, also published by Night Shade Books in 2011. Infidel is not a direct sequel to that book, though it does follow on from its story. In God’s War, Nyx was booted out of the bel dames – state bounty hunters / assassins – goes freelance, and ends up tracking down a missing offworlder for the Queen of Nasheen. God’s War is a violent and fast-paced novel, but it is in its world-building where it really shines. Both it and Infidel are set on the world of Umayma, which was settled by Muslims thousands of years before. Now, two nations, Nasheen and Chenja, are permanently at war. Chenja is the more orthodox of the two countries, but Nasheen, because it sends all its men to fight, has become a matriarchal moderate Islamic state. There are also other nations on Umayma, not all of which are Muslim. Also worthy of note is Umayma’s bug-based technology. Insects are used for everything, from powering vehicles – bakkies – to medicine. People who can control these insects are known as magicians, and they operate a semi-secret network, which provides instantaneous travel between their gyms. There is quite a bit of boxing in God’s War and Infidel. It appears to be the only sport mentioned; and it is both sexes who box. In Infidel, set several years later, Nyx is once again a freelance bounty hunter, but her team from God’s War are either dead or scattered. When she discovers she is a target of the bel dames, she tracks down her old team-mates, Khos, the shifter, and Rhys, who are now living in Tirhan, a nation which has grown rich on the sale of weapons to the Chenjan-Nasheenian war. It seems the bel dames are ready to stage a coup in Nasheen, and have determined that Nyx is an obstacle. So they want her out of the way. Meanwhile, the bel dame faction which is against the coup has tasked Nyx with preventing it. Instrumental to the coup is the sale to Tirhan of some sand which can eat flesh. Infidel drops more clues about the world of Umayma than its predecessor. The settlers spent a thousand years on the planet’s moon while the magicians attempted to terraform Umayma. There are hints that the bugs are native to the planet – and certainly there are insects which are impossible on Earth, such as dog-sized beetles and giant hornets. At one point, Nyx and her team must cross the countryside after their train is derailed, and it is only the presence of a magician which keeps them safe from the wild bugs. While Infidel certainly reads like science fiction – giant insects notwithstanding – some elements are a little hard to reconcile. Such as the shifting. Khos can change into a dog; other characters can shift into birds. Inaya, however, is a mutant shifter and can change into a number of different things – at one point she changes into a tree, at another into a green mist. There’s no sfnal explanation for any of this. The bug technology too is not entirely convincing, with little or no indication given how the magicians control the bugs, or how the bugs actually comprise the technology. Despite this, Infidel is a very good read. It’s not as frenetic as God’s War, but it is just as violent. People die horrible deaths; people are injured horribly. Nyx is an extremely well-drawn character, but the most interesting one in the novel is Inaya, a woman who tries maintain a normal and orthodox family life even though she is a mutant shifter and working as a spy against the Tirhani government. And this despite being brought up to believe shifters are evil and should be killed. Perhaps the plot pretends to a complexity it doesn’t possess, and the final showdown is a bit too neat an ending, but Infidel is a well thought-out and intelligent novel, which asks a number of questions and refuses to present easy answers. Both it and God’s War are among the best of the sf novels published during 2011. A third book, Rapture, is due to be published next year. I will be buying it.