Nyx was a soldier. Nyx was a government backed assassin and bounty hunter. Now she works for herself with her own rag-tag team making a living in the grim, war-torn land of Nasheen
Life isn’t good, a centuries long war has turned Nasheen pretty apocalyptic and winning is surviving to see the next day - and maybe earning enough money to drink enough not to remember yesterday
This book with all its short stories is gritty with a capital grit. At many points in the story I expected something - I expected Nyx to soften, I expected her to see her crew as more like family, I expected her to see her to melt towards Rhys especially.
But everything about this is gritty, dark and messy. There’s no love, there’s just the release of casual sex. There’s no companionship - there’s just people Nyx works with (and that grudgingly) and every time we feel like we’re getting closer to something more
I say all this not as a criticism of the book, or even as a warning but as a clear depiction of what the book is. And in some ways it’s unique for it. I’ve read a lot of books that bring in the melodramatic grimdark, usually with lots of rape and torture for the sheer gratuitous purpose. But few pull off the gritty, certainly unrelenting gritty, gritty without some bright sparks, gritty without some sense of a happy ending or a happy moment or something. For unrelenting grimdark, this book works and is just perfect for it
This works because this is the world that Nyx lives in, this world far from Earth but clearly colonised but Earth people, this world where two nations have been at war for generations, a brutal horrific war complete with weapons of mass destruction used with such regularity that they have become a normal part of everyone’s day, with a border where the atrocities have piled up so much that mounds of bodies just don’t even feature. We have a state, Nasheen, where large branches of quasi law enforcement are dedicated to little more than hunting down deserters from the devastating wars, where we have people bred expressly for that war and conscription that consumes entire lives
On top of this we have both the grittiness of the war - chemicals, weapons, violence etc, but also the dangerous nature of the world itself with its multiple suns and high cancer rates which translates into some really strong messages on class divide as the poor obviously can’t spend time inside behind filters so they are susceptible to skin lesions and cancer - while the rich have smooth skin that is saved from the touch of the sun
In this we have Nyx, a deeply unlikeable character… which is perfect. Why should she be likeable? She’s a war veteran from a war that has destroyed her country from before she was even born. She’s been destroyed, remade, suffered immense trauma, watched many people around her die, been on an array of missions most of which have not exactly gone well, worked some rather unsavoury professions. She’s led a terribly traumatic, awful life, in a terrible traumatic, awful world: why would she be nice or pleasant or likable? Why would she even care about these things? It would break this whole theme, world and story if she were a woman with hope and positivity or had somehow managed to come through all of this still shiny would completely change the whole tone of the book. Even as Nyx has regrets and moments of guilt she drowns them in alcohol and so many times I think she’s so close to making the kinder choice…
We also have a really really fascinating world, a mix of sci-fi and magic - and the whole idea of magic involving insects and the way this works with technology and the general blending of it into society is incredibly well done (and I love that, i love how magic/sci-fi elements are not just used for the big showy stuff but also work for the day to day lives of everyone in the world, fascinating and just makes me want to investigate more of this world and kinda poke the author with a stick - because how do you even come up with this? *poke poke*.
On top of this we have a fascinatingly diverse world. Nearly everyone in this book are POC, though they are not on Earth and direct analogues are not easy, it feels Nasheen is made up of people of Middle Eastern Descent (including Nyx herself) while the country they’re at war with, Chejan (Rhys’s nation) are Black people. We have other nations mentioned which don’t feature prominently but there’s also an interesting addressing of mixed-race characters and how they meld or adopt different aspects of their nations cultures. I also appreciate that, even with the short story format, there is still some really excellent world building of these related nations. This is also reflected in the clothing - Nyx most often wears burnouse and dhoti.
The primary religion of both the warring nations is Islam - or Islam based - with characters who have varying degrees of faithfulness and adherence: from Rhys who doesn’t drink and observes the daily prayers and Nyx’s sister who covers (but it’s also intriguing how Islam has adapted to their new world - like covering is not as much about modesty as it is about not being seared by the powerful suns. I like how culture and faith are still very recognisable but alien planets and shores and the passing of time have also shifted things
The culture of Nasheen is also very matriarchal - I don’t that’s a positive feminist thing intentionally here but part of the tragedy of this country mired in war. Men literally spend decades in the military from at least the age of 16 while women spend less time in the military inevitably leaving civilian society with few men in it. From heads of families, to Imams to teams of mercenaries, to the infamous Belle Dames, to police are all women. Most commonly any male characters, including men on Nyx’s team, are non-Nasheenian, exempt from the draft but as foreigners in a society that isn’t exactly welcoming to foreigners, not having high rank or influence.
Nyx is a bisexual woman and highly sexual - and not shy about it. She’s definitely not a blink-and-you-miss-it-portrayal: she has sexual encounters with men and women, she isn’t shy about her desires or when she’s feeling horny. It is bleak and depressing and often merges with her general gritty awfulness with sex being a relief or an escape which usually happens when she’s drunk. But, then, nearly everything happens when Nyx is drunk and everything she does is depressing and grittily awful: this is Nyx, her sex life is not now or ever going to be sunshine. A number of the other women we meet are lesbian and bisexual - and not just because they are sexually connected to Nyx - which is also something which is unusual. A lot of the time when we have one LGBTQ character they’re either the only one or any other LGBTQ character introduced is basically there to be a romantic or sexual interest (because LGBTQ characters need a purpose or reason for existing rather than just being characters). There’s also one minor trans character and one probably minor non-binary character (I think they’re intended to be non-binary and Nyx refers to them mentally by “they” pronouns, but the way it’s written she never says this aloud and she’s only assumed non-binary because Nyx herself can’t actually discern gender which isn’t exactly how someone being non-binary works).
In all - I love this world, I love these stories… I… don’t love these characters. That’s fine, I’m not supposed to love Nyx. It’s fascinating to read, and at times quite fun to read but also very gritty and grim. I love this book and want to read all the books in it for the whole series. I also don’t want to read them back to back because the perfect, unrelenting grimness of it may make for hard reading book after book.