"Prayers for the Assassin": A radically different world

"Prayers for the Assassin"
by Robert Ferrigno
Scribner, 416 pp., $24.95

It's always risky when an established writer jumps the comfort zone, forsaking familiar terrain to try something new. It's a pleasure to report, therefore, that Kirkland writer Robert Ferrigno's new book is a provocative and compelling success.

Though "Prayers for the Assassin" is clearly told in Ferrigno's distinctive voice, it's a bold departure. His previous thrillers, which include "The Horse Latitudes" and "The Wake-Up," are all set in the sun-bleached, high-strung weirdness of contemporary Southern California. It's a milieu that has provided the writer with consistently rich material.

His new novel, however, has a dramatically different setting. We're several decades in the future. New York, Washington, D.C., and Mecca have been simultaneously destroyed by nuclear explosions. According to accepted wisdom, these were caused by renegade Israeli terrorists who hoped to blame their actions on radical jihadis and thus discredit Islam.

When their plan was exposed, Israel was overrun and Islam spread quickly across the Earth. A civil war has split America in the wake of this upheaval; one part of the country has converted to Islam, while the Bible Belt remains solidly Christian.

The Islamic Republic (with Seattle as its capital) is a generally moderate land, tolerant of "moderns" who do not observe fundamentalist customs such as the wearing of traditional dress. (It's also tolerant of pro sports: As the book opens, the Super Bowl is interrupted for midday prayers.) The State Security forces dominate its politics, though the conservative Black Robes and the shadowy Assassins are amassing increasing amounts of power.

Two people lie at the book's heart. Rakkim Epps is an ex-elite soldier and a Muslim who has lost his faith. His lover, Sarah Dougan, is a moderate Muslim, a noted historian, and the niece of the head of State Security. Sarah is preparing a hot potato of a book: a revisionist look at the cataclysmic attacks. She has uncovered evidence that the forces behind them were not Jewish terrorists but a fanatic Muslim billionaire. Dangerous information, to say the least, and when word gets out Sarah must disappear. Rakkim tracks her down, and together they flee.

Chief among the forces of danger is a cool killer named Darwin. Ferrigno has always had a weakness for his villains — or is that a strength? At any rate, as with past books, the bad guy is far and away the most vivid character in "Prayers for the Assassin." OK, so he's a creepy psycho with a flair for grotesque death; he's also a silky charmer who gets the best dialogue.

"Prayers for the Assassin" is not perfect; it suffers under the weight of exposition needed to set its scene. When we're in Ferrigno's Southern California, no explanations are necessary — we may not know the specific characters, but we know their types, and we certainly know the general atmosphere from a million movies, TV shows and books.

Here, though, the world is radically different, and the book's beginning slows down as Ferrigno fills in the details. Fortunately, the learning curve is short and, once past the exposition, the plot picks up smartly.

Ferrigno has remarked that all his novels are both thrillers and love stories, and "Prayers for the Assassin" is no exception. But it also becomes a springboard for larger issues: questions of religious freedom, lost faith, and tolerance or the lack thereof. (One character remarks, "The faith is not the problem. The problem is the faithful.")

Ferrigno is a highly opinionated fellow; readers can check out his always iconoclastic and often surprising thoughts at a blog site connected with this book, republicworldnews.com. In "Prayers for the Assassin" itself, however, the author refrains from beating readers on the head with a personal agenda, instead letting them form their own opinions about the thought-provoking future world he has conjured.

Seattle writer Adam Woog's column on mystery and crime fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Times.

Seattle is the capital of the Islamic Republic in "Prayers for the Assassin." (DETAIL FROM THE BOOK COVER)

Coming up

Robert Ferrigno will sign "Prayers for the Assassin" at noon Feb. 21 at Seattle Mystery Bookstore (206-587-5737; www.seattlemystery.com). He will read at 7:30 p.m. March 8 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Store (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).