Prayers for the Assassin
Published by Scribner
416 pages, 2006
Days of Judgment
Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
The Muslim world has taken center stage in U.S. and world media coverage for the past five years, ever since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 -- to both good and bad effect. Yes, one result has been a greater understanding of Islam and the Muslim culture. However, the bloody conflict in Iraq has corrupted the desperately hoped-for advancement of democracy in the Middle East with confirmed mishandlings of virtually every aspect of George W. Bush's war, including rampant malfeasance by various American and Iraqi administrators in Saddam Hussein's homeland. Now, falling resoundingly on the positive side is Robert Ferrigno's latest novel, Prayers for the Assassin, a work of significant reach that reads like historical documentation, with a novel's dramatic flair. The audacity of this novel's premise -- an Islamic America -- may cause discomfort in some readers, but that's a good thing. By challenging political and personal sensibilities, Prayers proves itself to be a vital work of crime fiction.
Set in the year 2040, Prayers finds the political and religious landscape of the United States much altered from what we know now: Most states of the old Southern Confederacy have broken away to form a Bible Belt republic; much of the American Southwest is under Mexican sway; and Nevada and Utah have split off as discrete territories. The rest of the country has turned into the Islamic States of America, with a "gold crescent replacing the stars" on the former U.S. flag, and Seattle as the capital. All of this change was precipitated by catastrophic events -- three nuclear devices exploded in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Mecca on May 19, 2015.
Rakkim stared at the stark, black-and-white wreckage of New York City and Washington, D.C., trying to take in the miles of shattered concrete and twisted metal, but it was impossible. The photo from ground zero at Mecca was less dramatic, but equally devastating. The nuclear bombs that had been smuggled into New York and Washington, D.C., had been city busters, but Mecca had better security. The device detonated at the height of the hajj had been a suitcase nuke, a dirty bomb. Over a hundred thousand who had made the pilgrimage died later of plutonium poisoning, but the city itself was intact.
Zionists were held responsible for those sneak attacks, after one of the bombers was captured by the FBI and gave a taped confession. The mass destruction that followed the Zionist Betrayal, as it's remembered in the history books, caused an upheaval in America, a nation that had already been teetering on the brink of social and political bankruptcy. China emerged from the fray as the world's superpower, while America withered into a mere shadow of its previous greatness. Islam provided a soothing balm for the U.S. survivors. As Ferrigno writes:
The Zionist Betrayal was the final blow, collapsing the economy and bringing on a declaration of martial law. In the midst of such chaos, the moral certainty of Islam was the perfect antidote to the empty bromides of the churches, and the corruption of the political class. After losing a disputed national election, vast numbers of disaffected Christians migrated to the Bible Belt and declared their independence. In a stroke of political brilliance, the remaining Christians, mostly Catholics, were granted almost equal citizenship with the Muslim majority in the new Islamic Republic. The nation held together.
Against this backdrop, Ferrigno gives life to his characters and weaves what boils down to a love story, with delicious complications and thriller ambitions. The protagonist here is Rakkim Epps, a Muslim Fedayeen warrior living in Seattle. Fedayeen are "the elite troops of the Islamic Republic," under the control of General Maurice Kidd, a feared Somalian. Fedayeen are also occasionally employed by the Black Robes, the suffocating fundamentalist authorities of the republic, led by cutthroat upstart Ibn-Azziz. Though Epps has left the Fedayeen, his stature remains legendary among the troops.
Rakkim Epps had been an outstanding Fedayeen recruit, top of his class, quickly given charge of small-unit ops in the Mormon territories. ... Two years later he had been rated exceptional in all categories ... had volunteered for long-range reconnaissance, become a shadow warrior. .... It was the most dangerous designation in Fedayeen, even more dangerous than assassin.
Epps is a lapsed Muslim in a country that follows the patriarchal edicts of Islam, and he's more sympathetic to the tastes and spirit of the mainly Catholic "moderns." Epps likes sex and booze, and he's become part-owner of the Blue Moon, a bar located in Seattle's Zone, "officially called the Christian Quarter, a thirty-or-forty-block section of the city where nightclubs and coffeehouses flourished, where cybergame parlors and movie theatres operated largely free of censorship. The Zone was loud and raucous, the streets littered, the buildings marred by graffiti, a morals-free area open to everyone -- Christian, Muslim, modern, tech, freak, whomever or whatever. Untamed, innovative, and off-the-books, the Zone celebrated dangerous pursuits."
Further complicating Epps' life is that he has fallen in love with Sarah Dougan, a strikingly attractive history professor and the niece of Thomas "Redbeard" Dougan, the feared chief of State Security, a guy described as being "built like a bull, with angry eyes and a beard the color of a forest fire." Redbeard assumed his position upon the assassination of his brother, James, Sarah's father. Protective of his niece, Redbeard has forbidden the affair between Sarah and Epps, going so far as to promote an arranged marriage for her with another man. However, Sarah is quite a handful, a modern woman within a traditionalist culture. She's also the author of How the West Was Really Won: The Creation of the Islamic States of America through the Conquest of Popular Culture. Although that book was a bestseller, its premise -- that the Islamic Republic's birth had been less a matter of spiritual awakening than a calculated revision ("initiated by decades of Saudi stipends to American decision makers, and, even more important, a series of high-profile public conversions") -- has proved to be an embarrassment for Redbeard, and has made Sarah a dangerous enemy to Muslim fundamentalists and power-seekers.
And here's where what might have been merely speculative fiction becomes superior crime fiction. It seems that Sarah has run away from home and Redbeard, after discovering that the Zionist Betrayal was not connected to Israel at all, but was a scheme perpetrated by the Wise Old One (born Hassan Muhammad), an influential, natty-dressing Muslim billionaire who lives like an Arab Howard Hughes at the top of a commercial tower in Las Vegas, a city of 14 million people that has found its new niche as "the information and financial hub of the continent, beyond doctrine or politics, a useful evil." Sarah's knowledge of the Old One's perfidies, both past and still planned, makes her a threat to him -- and, further, threatens to destabilize the whole Islamic Republic. So the Old One dispatches a roguish assassin named Darwin to take her out. Darwin is a masterfully rendered psychopath, unsurpassed at the killing arts. His inner monologue and skewed sense of reality make for compelling reading. Darwin takes delight in leaving behind macabre scenes of deliberately rendered carnage. (One set of victims, for instance, is discovered holding each other's severed heads in their laps.) Although he, like Epps, is a former Fedayeen, Darwin has no regard for religion, or God.
Any God who could create this raging shithole of a world had no fragile sensibilities. Nothing offended God. Anyone who kept his eyes open would have to conclude that ... [God] thought the screams of men were sweeter music than the singing of nightingales. ... To a man like Darwin, faith was a distraction, if not a hindrance. When he was accepted into the assassins, he no longer had to pretend. There were no laws, no restrictions, no prayers for assassins. They were free.
But Darwin and the Old One aren't the only ones trying to flush out Sarah. Concerned for her safety, Redbeard sends the only man he trusts to bring her back -- namely Rakkim Epps, whom he trained to fight, after Rakkim's parents were killed (his mother in the nuking of Manhattan, his father in a later, petty fight). Yet Sarah proves her ingenuity and intelligence, by staying a step or two ahead of Epps -- and doing away with a bad guy along the way. Unbeknownst to Epps, at least initially, Darwin has decided to track him in order to find dear Sarah. Like any valiant warrior, Epps needs an equally worthy adversary, and his combative moments with Darwin, as well as the cat-and-mouse games they play, provide classically edge-of-your-seat turns in this tale. By contrast, the love shared between Sarah and Epps is hot and tender, and authentic. There isn't a single cardboard figure in this novel. Thank goodness.
Ferrigno, who up until now has written dark and character-rich modern thrillers (including Scavenger Hunt and Flinch, the latter being a January Magazine favorite from 2001), demonstrates in Prayers for the Assassin a real understanding and appreciation of Islam. He fills his ninth novel not with Arab "evildoers" from central casting, but with devout and good Muslims who respect both life and each other. Despite increased public awareness of Islamic values ever since 9/11, it's still important to make clear -- in fiction as well as non-fiction -- that followers of the Holy Qur'an are pretty much just like everybody else on this planet, not all of them turbaned Osama bin Laden-wannabes. Nonetheless, there are corrupt and selfish leaders in every government and every religious order, and Islam is by no means exempt. The Old One could be any government sachem, although he goes to truly diabolical lengths to maintain his authority. Henchmen like Darwin, and religious fanatics like Ibn-Azziz have their contemporary counterparts.
Prayers' dénouement is high-concept, with danger and dramatic exploits occurring at -- of all places -- the annual Oscar Awards presentation. Sarah and her family possess the true story behind the Zionist Betrayal, and their mettle is tested against the wills of the Old One and Darwin. Without Sarah, the main thrust of the notorious Zionist conspiracy of 2015 might never come to light. Only one other person, we're told, can expose the facts: Sarah's mother, Katherine Dougan. This is an interesting and telling concept, that it's the women in Ferrigno's new novel who hold the keys to a world-shaking truth, while the men are preoccupied with power struggles and slaying each other.
Robert Ferrigno has created a cast of characters who illustrate that Islam is not responsible for the world's problems today; rather, it's the actions of so-called leaders, who commit unprincipled acts under cover of God or government, who are the real threats to us all. It is the allure of might and wealth that get men in trouble -- and that, we are learning, can happen in any government, any regime. Prayers for the Assassin is a cautionary tale, a work of insight and a novel of great courage. | February 2006
Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.