When is a bounty hunter not a bounty hunter? The answer: when author Kameron Hurley writes about one. In that case, the bounty hunter becomes something more, and in becoming more, becomes the seed around which the culture of an entire planet — and an entire story — crystallizes. The result is God’s War, Hurley’s debut novel. In this Big Idea, Hurley shows you how she started with the bounty hunter, and built from there.
Everybody wants to write a book about bounty hunters who run around chopping off heads, right?
God’s War would have likely ended up being just another story about a bounty hunter in the desert if I hadn’t started reading about homicide in the biblical world. I read far too many history books, and while doing some research for my “bounty hunter novel” I found an odd little nugget of a term: bēl damê.
No, not belle dame (beautiful woman) or bel dame (ugly old woman), but bēl damê, an old Assyrian/Babylonian term for a blood avenger. Or, perhaps, a murderer. None of the historians’ sources were exactly sure what it meant, only that killing was involved. Whether that killing was honorable – avenging a wronged family by hunting down the person who’d murdered their kin – or simple murder, was a matter of much debate, as the records are highly fragmented. There were all sorts of translations, but the ones I liked best were “owner of the blood” and “collector of blood debt.”
I didn’t want to write a bounty hunter story anymore. I wanted to write a story about bēl damês.
The bēl damê/belle dame association was too tasty to pass up. I posited a world policed by old school bloody Assyrian law – enforced by a group of highly skilled, highly scary female government assassins called bel dames (unsurprisingly, my publisher had me lose the character accent marks immediately).
Everything else – the currency in blood and organs and bugs, the shape shifters, the mad boxing magicians, the centuries-old holy war, came from that one little term. From Assyria and Babylonia, I started going through the Old Testament, the Quran, the Torah, and digging back into the history of violence in South Africa, Rwanda, and more modern day Iran and Iraq.
Stories may begin with a single idea, but once you have that idea, you need to flesh out the kind of world that that idea exists in, and I knew that if I had a group of bloody minded women enforcing the rules of blood debt, I was going to be dealing with a violent, resource-strapped world at war. Why war? Because when men go to war – perpetual war – there are a few ways you can deal with it. The primary country in the novel, Nasheen, dealt with it by sending all the men off to war… leaving women to run the world. And police it. And… continue the politics of war.
My background is in history, so I’ve cut my teeth on a lot of terrible stories. When I was doing my graduate work in South Africa, I actually lost my stomach for any kind of gratuitous movie violence. I remember walking out of several theaters for their violent and totally casual depictions of abuse, particularly against women. I was living in a place where one in three people had AIDS and one in three women was raped, and spending my days poring over old transcripts of political violence and abuses committed during the Apartheid era. I couldn’t abide violence as a casual aside. It needed to show me something about people or perseverance. It needed to mean something. It had to be something besides safe, sanitized entertainment. It was that constant look into blood and horror that helped me create who the bel dames were in this world.
Living in a world of blood and horror does not make you a spunky co-ed in tight leather pants. Your primary angst in life isn’t going to be whether or not you’re sleeping with the werewolf or the vampire (or both). You are going to be concerned primarily about survival. Probably addicted to several kinds of drugs. Likely have a drinking problem. And if you’re still alive in this brutal world, you’re going to be very, very good at killing things. And the real monsters might even start to like it. There may come a time when you can’t imagine the world as any other place but one where folks are maimed, mutilated, and brutalized for the good of a cause. For honor. For patriotism. For religion.
I wanted to build a complex world where these terrifying women could exist as real people. And I wanted to build a rollicking good adventure story within it that left you wondering a lot about the ways we negotiate violence in our own world.
The people always come first in my books, and this one was no exception. Once I had the bel dames, I knew exactly the sort of person I wanted to write about. Her name was Nyx, and she had done something so horrible that the most terrifying women in the world had kicked her out of their ranks – but not something so bad that they wanted to kill her. No, I decided, the bel dames didn’t like to kill their own. Not when they could keep them around to use them for later.
Thing was, Nyx isn’t the sort who likes to be used. So when the inevitable bounty hunter story starts, we are not dealing with bounty hunters as we know them anymore. We’re not in a world we can immediately recognize. The day is nearly thirty hours long. The suns give everybody cancer. Nobody can remember a time without war. Bugs power the world’s technology and make up the primary food source. Magicians build weapons of war. The world is a contaminated ruin, and most folks die young.
But it’s a world of intensely passionate and powerful people, the kind of people we imagine could be great heroes, avengers. Or monsters.
That’s what God’s War is about. A world at war. The people who police it. The joy and terror and fear and awe of living on after the end of the apocalypse, when everybody says the world has ended… when the war has just begun.