Friday, June 27, 2008

Robert Ferrigno's "Sins of the Assassin": Book Review

I finished the prequel, "Prayers for the Assassin," (also reviewed by me last week here and on Amazon) and immediately started this second installment of what will be three thrillers set around 2040, when North America's split between incursions from Canada, an Aztlan Empire, and between the Islamic Republic over most of what was the Union and the Bible Belt over the South.

Ferrigno's more relaxed this time around in telling the adventures of Rakkim Epps' second mission, into the Belt in search of a secret weapon as as undercover "shadow warrior." Less time's devoted, however, to stalwarts from the first book, such as police chief Colarusso, Rakkim's wife Sarah and her political ties and her research into the causes for the Republic's spying and diplomacy, or the Black Robe minions who terrorize the fundamentalist Muslims. Instead, the mission itself takes up more of the story. You meet his new sidekick, Leo, a likably annoying mental mastermind. You also find Rakkim squaring off against the Colonel, his new nemesis Gravenholtz, the conniving femme fatale Baby, and an ex-English prof, Crews, with his ragtag band of fanatics. Shekels of Tyre, Etch-a-Sketches, snake handling, and the aura of Darwin (a welcome if haunting spirit from the first novel) float over this tale.

I admired the encounter at the Church of the Mists; this provided a nearly mystical pilgrimage that worked well as a counter to the bloody encounters and cruel regimes that lord over a cowed population ground down by corrupt Texas Rangers, press-gangs, foreign exploiters, and environmentally disastrous corporate entities despoiling what's left of the South's natural resources in an era of the Big Warm and when most of what was the U.S. is backsliding into a Third World economy and class system. I also think that we have not seen the last of the splendidly named Getty Andalou in regards to the political shenanigans that lurk behind the scenes in the Beltway.

You should read "Prayers" first. There's references to angelic flutters, arcane methods of eliminating your enemy, or strawberry shakes, for example, that will not mean as much otherwise. The book reads more rapidly if you already have a grasp of the ideological tensions and the social collapses that have occurred previously in "Prayers." Religious certainties again receive brisk skepticism, but there's also a respect for decency that permeates the decisions made by key characters when under attack, morally as well as physically.

Finally, this shows Ferrigno's growing ease with his bitterly infected milieu here. This book reveals maturity, as main characters are tested as to their loyalties. There's an added depth about the sadness and necessity of death, and the price exacted on assassins and hired killers, as well as the fragility of lives lived more morally in this harsh and sinister dystopia. You may not expect a consideration of dignity at the root of this fast-paced thriller, but this enriches this intelligently told narrative. The author writes with a steady focus here. I miss some of the epigrammatic asides of "Prayers," but "Sins" moves with more economy and a narrower scope. Also, the style moves steadily. It's sustained, less edgy if not less cynical in parts. Rakkim appears to be coming to a realization of his limits, and he seems more serious and less flippant three years after his earlier mission.

I liked this novel as much as the first one, but I found the plot of "Sins" easier to follow, with fewer characters, far fewer subplots, and no tangents from the main story. The climactic scenes did occur rather suddenly, but I suppose this fits the genre. Perhaps more will be explained as to the machinations of the Old One vs. the Black Robes vs. the Fedayeen command, not to mention some of the Bible Belt contacts in deep cover, in the last book, so my criticism is on hold here!

Ferrigno again makes you cringe and makes you ponder the consequences of strategies already glimpsed, on pp. 68-69, presciently in our current culture's regard for Islamist sympathies. The Old One's long-term plans may already be coming to fruition. Read those pages and you may reconsider very current events!

Freed from the fascinating but admittedly complex setting-up of his near-future realpolitik and its religious tyrannies and social complications that underlay the exposition of the intricate storyline in "Prayers," there's much more room now for action. It's satisfyingly tense, and more militaristic in parts, as you get the sense that Ferrigno's itching to explore the fog of war and larger-scale maneuvers. His battle set between warring factions in a Southern forest makes for exciting reading, and the scene feels real, rooted in his understanding of how men behave under fire and how easily careful strategy gives way to bravado, fear, and greed.

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