Thursday, August 20, 2009

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

In "Prayers," Ferrigno created a marvelous dystopia, the Islamic Republic. West Coast jihadis met Cascades thugs as Rikki tried to escape Seattle, the capital. The author in this had a marvelous set-piece as Rikki was pursued down backwoods roads. A challenge in any alternative history set in the future is to keep the plot moving while informing the reader of the immense changes that have torn apart mid-21st c. America, split into the Bible Belt vs. Islamic Rep. not to mention Mormons, Cubans in Florida, nuclear contaminated zones, and zombies in what was D.C. The scope of a ruined North America and another Aztlan reconquering the Southwest only added to the intensity, but the focus here remained more on the Islamic regime and the various types of fanaticism or moderation that Americans in most of the former U.S. had adjusted to as the dar-al-Islam shifted from a radioactive Mecca to an unexpected new continent to rule. (I reviewed it and "Sins" last year on Amazon US and my blog.)

"Sins" kept the trilogy efficiently gathering intensity, as Rikki and his sidekick Leo entered the Bible Belt undercover, and the set-piece of the eerie Church in the Mists still haunts me for its unsettling mysticism amidst redneck mayhem. Ferrigno seemed to ease up the pace of the immense effort of constructing his realms, and the middle volume had more breathing room for political intrigue mixed with even more bloodcurdling action, spiced with sassy dialogue, theological musings, and social satire. Battle scenes rather than hand-to-hand combat entered the scenarios, and both arenas show the author's skill at mingling characters you care about--even the villains-- with true glimpses of cruelty, cynicism, idealism, decay, betrayal, lust, and more betrayal.

"Heart" wraps it up with more of the same elements; short chapters in very cinematic form illustrate a wide range of characters contending for power. It takes time to appreciate these books, and while streamlined in style and very accessibly told, the alternate history that Ferrigno tells demands attention; his speculations are often inserted almost off-handedly into more conventional thriller episodes. This balance of excitement and meditation can prove poignant and poetic as well as bitterly humorous or ethically instructive.

In the final installment, now the Southern borders get more attention, as the Empire of Aztlan now contends against foes last seen in "Sins" from the Bible Belt, as perhaps they can be manipulated into an alliance of "one-god" peoples against the oil-rich polytheists from south of a border creeping ever north. Rikki is back, and so is his rival super-engineered rival Gravenholtz. Baby and the Old One, Sarah, Leo, Spider, and Ibn-Azziz also return to heighten the tension. It's more international chaos as you never know whom to trust or blame for the latest atrocity broadcast in this militarized, policed, censored, surveilled, and patrolled cyber-hell, half-decaying, half-luxurious, depending upon who's doing the funding as armies battle, mosques tower, and churches fill with a curious interpretation of an ecumenical gospel.

D.C. must be entered, as there's what may or may not be a splinter of the True Cross with miraculous powers within. It may be a McGuffin or a Maltese Falcon, or it may be real, but who else but Rikki Epps, with help from certain friends, to find out? That's about all I can entice you with; the rest of the story awaits your enjoyment.

I will miss this sprawling panorama of despair and dreams, for Ferrigno loves his Pandemonium, and even gains kudos for the insertion on p. 121 of the election of our first "multiracial" President, named "after a grandson of the Prophet," and our current Crusade, as part of the convincing backstory that shows how not violent jihad alone, but gradual conversion by celebrities, a disgust with decayed Christianity and secular capitalism, globalization and our current economic downturn all could be logically seen, in deadly hindsight, as leading to a possible future not so improbable after all.

That Ferrigno uses so much intelligence, research, imagination, and enthusiasm to tell his story proves not only a page-turner (and care is needed as so much is embedded within the dialogue and narration that refers back to "Sins" and "Prayers") but a meditation on our own folly and one radical way that emerges for some to offer us, lost and losing hope, a way for a salvation unseen by the Founding Fathers to whose dirty-bombed capital Rikki returns for a gripping and thoughtfully presented encounter with the end of one American dream and perhaps the attempt to rebuild a more perfect nation after all its divisibility.

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