Robert Ferrigno is the anti-Robert Harris, and not just because Ferrigno was one of the very few writers courageous enough to admit voting for George W Bush, while judging by his latest book, Harris thinks that dear old Tony Blair is too far to the right for his Old Labor sensibilities. More interesting, however, is the creative trajectory: while Harris launched his fiction career with the mother of all alt history thrillers, Fatherland, before settling into a comfortable pattern of traditional political and historical suspense, Ferrigno has abandoned his trademark California noir genre, which served us well for eight gripping installments, to give us the ultimate alternative history thriller for the post-9/11 world, the much-acclaimed and best-selling %%AMAZON=1416567372 Prayers for the Assassin%%.
Prayers was a creative risk for Ferrigno. Everyone had told him he was crazy to abandon the greener pastures of the contemporary West Coast crime novel for a politically incorrect dystopia, yet Prayers turned out to be the biggest best-seller of his career, widely acclaimed and translated, winning him a whole new cohort of fans. I guess the reading audience was ready, after all, for a thriller set in not too distant future where Islam dominates the globe, and the United States is no more, either as a superpower or even one nation, riven by a cold civil war between the Islamic Republic of America and the recalcitrant Bible Belt.
In Prayers we have first met Rakkim Epps, an ex-member of Fedayeen, the elite special ops force serving the President of the Islamic Republic, now a lapsed Muslim living in the unsavory underbelly of Seattle, the rain-soaked, depilated capital of the Republic. The book follows his quest to find the woman he loves, after she has suddenly gone missing in mysterious circumstances, but it progressively also turns out to be a quest to discover the truth behind the so-called Zionist Betrayal, the simultaneous nuclear terrorist attack on New York, Washington and Mecca. Supposedly staged by the Mossad, this outrage was the major catalyst for the transformation of the world as we know it into the Prayers world of 2040, where the Super Bowl at the Khomeini Stadium opens with public prayers, ruined Disneyland provides sordid haunt for prostitutes, while the Christian South seems to only produce narcotics, Coca-Cola and an assortment of petty warlords. We had fought the war on terror and the bad guys won, but their victory was won as much in the hearts and minds of millions as on the battlefields, which gives Ferrigno’s dystopia a more nuanced and disturbing quality.
Constructing a whole new reality that is believable, internally consistent and interesting is a task that many a writer has failed recently (The Resurrection Day and Romanitas spring to mind), but Ferrigno manages to carry it off as effortlessly as if he were still writing about the ever-familiar contemporary Southern California of his earlier novels. The world he has created is utterly convincing, a superb blend of the familiar and the surreal that avid blog readers and keen followers of contemporary events will in particular find mesmerizing. But what Ferrigno brings to the table is not just rich imagination, but also his trademark writing style; poignant, atmospheric, sharp as the blade of a Fedayeen knife. On his blog, Ferrigno writes that “while writing a novel, the author is a god. Me, I’m often a vengeful god.” Somehow, I can’t shake the thought that if the Almighty had written the Old Testament himself, rather than just dictating it, it would read just like a Ferrigno novel.
Musicians dread the proverbial difficult second album. For novelists, writing a second book in the series is, if anything, even more of a challenge, none more so than in the genre of speculative fiction. In a first book, readers not only get to be captivated by the plot, but also share in the experience of discovering and exploring a new world created by the author. In a second book, the novel’s universe is now taken for granted. There are very few surprises and new angles to be added; it falls to the plot alone to sustain interest. Fortunately, Ferrigno delivers in spades.
%%AMAZON=1416537651 Sins of the Assassin%% (the second in a planned trilogy), resumes three years after the events of Prayers. The Islamic Republic and the Bible Belt still coexist in an uneasy balance of terror that threatens to be destroyed by Colonel, a Southern warlord who is excavating a mountain in Tennessee, looking for a super-weapon buried by the previous regime. Rakkim Epps, the hero of Prayers is sent on a stealth mission to infiltrate the Belt, like he used to in his Fedayeen days, and to retrieve or destroy the weapon with a help of Leo, a 19-year old savant son of Spider, the Jewish super-hacker from Prayers.
It might seem a bit ho-hum after the uber-adventure of Prayers, but have no fear, Ferrigno will keep you going. This roller-coaster has got everything: Waco theme park, the sunken New Orleans, burning coalfields and miraculous churches, a sinister Islamic Messiah still plotting the global caliphate, apocalyptic cults, biotech-enhanced killers, precocious Southern princesses, and a whole lot more.
Ferrigno had been in the past accused of bigotry and Muslim-bashing (most recently, Mark Steyn is in trouble with Canada’s Human Rights Inquisition for merely reviewing Prayers in Maclean’s a few year ago). As Orwell once wisely wrote, there are some things so stupid that only an intellectual could believe them. Misty-eyed multiculturalists and cultural relativists, take a bow. Prayers, and now Sins, are no harsher critics of some aspects of an Islamic society than the United Nations Arab Human Development Report. Most of Ferrigno’s characters, both good and bad, are Muslims of various shades of religious commitment. Ferrigno himself, as repelled he is by some aspects of the society he created (its lack of freedoms, technological backwardness), nevertheless finds many aspects of Islam alluring when not tainted by extremism: the strength of convictions, the inner certitude, brotherhood, and sense of community. His books are no more anti-Islam than Fatherland was anti-German or Animal Farm anti-Russian (in an animalistic disguise) – the enemy is the totalitarianism and extremism (Christian fanatics get as bad a write-up in Ferrigno’s books).
You can easily read Sins as a free-standing novel, but if you haven’t read Prayers yet, why deny yourself this pleasure? Go out and buy Sins but get also a copy of the prequel, or if you already have it, re-read it like I did. Prayers might have been like Star Wars, a free standing story with a happy ending, but now that we know we’re dealing with a trilogy, Sins looks decidedly like The Empire Strikes Back, the darker middle chapter where the bad guys reassert their dominance. But the good thing about Ferrigno is his unpredictability; you just don’t know if, comes the book number three, Jedi will return. Either way, I can’t wait.
Arthur Chrenkoff is a retired blogger and the author of the supernatural alternate reality war thriller Night Trains.