“What if” or futuristic scenarios are often difficult things to pull off. Plausibility can be tricky thing. I would imagine that deciding how much you can trust the reader to suspend their disbelief is challenge for authors. In order to make people think, and to entertain them at the same time, you have to push things, exaggerate elements to a greater degree than you might wish in a more conventional story. But push things too far and you run the risk of losing the reader.
The reason behind these musings is Robert Ferrigno’s latest book Prayers for the Assassin which is set in the year 2040 and imagines part of America as an Islamic Republic. In large part, your enjoyment of the book will be dependent on how much you are willing to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the story. Seen as an action/thriller with “what if” cultural and political components, Assassin is entertaining and at times thought provoking. If on the other hand, you are looking for a fully fleshed out view of what the world might look like in 2040, or a completely believable political scenario for an American Islamic Republic, you might be disappointed.
Here is how the book flap sets the scene:
SEATTLE, 2040. The Space Needle lies crumpled. Veiled women hurry through the busy streets. Alcohol is outlawed, replaced by Jihad Cola, and mosques dot the skyline. New York and Washington, D.C., are nuclear wastelands. Phoenix is abandoned, Chicago the site of a civil war battle. At the edges of the empire, Islamic and Christian forces fight for control of a very different United States.
[. . .]
After simultaneous suitcase-nuke attacks destroy New York, Washington, D.C., and Mecca — attacks blamed on Israel — a civil war breaks out. An uneasy truce leaves the nation divided between an Islamic republic with its capital in Seattle, and the Christian Bible Belt in the old South. In this frightening future there are still Super Bowls and Academy Awards, but calls to Muslim prayer echo in the streets and terror is everywhere. Freedom is controlled by the state, paranoia rules, and rebels plot to regain free will…
The story follows two characters: Rakkim Epps, a former elite warrior, and Sarah Dougan, a young iconoclastic historian. Dougan is researching the nuclear blasts that led to the conflagration and the formation of the American Islamic Republic. What she begins to find out about these world changing events calls into question the history and rationale of governments around the world. It also make her a fugitive. Epps is called on by her uncle, the head of state security, to find her. Epps does manage to track her down but rather than simply return Dougan to her father he helps her run down the clues to solve the mystery at the heart of these world changing events.
An added wrinkle, is that a secretive radical known as the Old Wise One is seeking to set up a universal Islamic Kingdom and has an assassin on the trail of Epps and Dougan. So Epps must protect his lover (the two fell in love while living together with her uncle), help her unlock to the clues that might destabilize the government, and avoid being killed by a highly trained assassin.
Personally, I didn’t find the futuristic parts of the story highly compelling or insightful by themselves. I will admit I had a hard time finding the set up and resulting political configuration plausible (hence the musing at the beginning of the post). It was interesting to think about what America might look like, and how society might function, if there was a Muslim majority. Ferrigno creatively contemplates how society might be torn between radicals, moderates, and those Christians who have tried to find some accommodation with the new system. The strangeness and the inevitable culture clashes force you to think about life under a foreign and restrictive system. But it was a lot to swallow with not a lot of set up. (In the author’s defense, it is often hard to imagine what might have been or what might happen in different circumstances. In thinking about plausibility, I was reminded of how the depression and World War I turned the world upside down. It completely changed the way people looked at the world and the actions they were willing to take to change or to adapt to change. It may seem hard to believe but many people thought that the capitalist and democratic systems were doomed to fail.)
Some might argue that Ferrigno creates an unrealistic or unfair caricature of Islam – what Publishers Weekly called a “cartoon version of Islam” – but I don’t think that is the issue. Ferrigno portrays a wide range of faith from radical to moderate to merely cultural or symbolic. No one faith or culture is the bad guy in this story, even if the radical Mullahs are the heavies.
Instead what you have is a action orientated thriller that has an imaginative setting. For me the action/thriller elements soon took over and the cultural/political aspects just provided backdrop and a unique perspective. I am not familiar with Ferrigno’s previous work, but I found the pace was good and the tension was kept tight for the most part (I could have done without some of the sex scenes). I didn’t find the book quite as “dazzling and “audacious” as David Montgomery did but I found it kept my attention and left me entertained. Its unique setting and perspective does add a freshness that you might not get from the same old political thriller or murder mystery.
As I noted above, how willing you are to suspend your disbelief and go with the flow of the story will play a big role in your enjoyment of this book. If you are a hard nosed cynic with high expectations of complete plausibility you might not be able to overcome the radical scenario it is built upon. On the other hand, if you like political thrillers and are looking for something a little different, or if you just like thinking about “what if” type scenarios, you should enjoy Ferrigno’s creative and fast paced story.