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Friday, January 25, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Islamic States of America: the saga continues

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Robert Ferrigno will discuss "Sins of the Assassin" in a Fabulist Fiction Salon, 7 p.m. Monday, Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave., Seattle; $5 suggested donation (206-322-7030 or www.hugohouse.org). He will sign books at noon Feb. 5 at Seattle Mystery Books,117 Cherry St., Seattle (206-587-5737 or www.seattlemystery.com).

Three or four decades from now, the former United States will be a profoundly different place. Or so Kirkland novelist Robert Ferrigno's audacious "Sins of the Assassin" (Scribner, 400 pp., $24.95) would have us believe.

It's 2043. Most of the country, in the wake of devastating nuclear attacks and civil war, has experienced a religious conversion and has become a moderate Islamic republic. (The attacks were initially, but wrongly, thought to be the work of Israeli agents.)

New Orleans is completely gone, wiped out in a massive flood. San Francisco is called New Fallujah. And standing in bitter opposition to the Islamic Republic is the Bible Belt, a huge, anarchic swath of radical Christianity.

In Seattle, the Islamic Republic's new capital, Rakkim Epps, an ex-elite soldier, is tapped for a mission. A Bible Belt warlord known as the Colonel is searching deep in Kentucky's mountain caves for an antique but potentially over-

powering weapons system. It must be found before the Colonel can sell it to the Chinese or Brazilians. And so Rakkim infiltrates enemy territory, leaving behind his wife and child and reluctantly bringing with him Leo, a nerdy but brilliant teen who may hold the key to the treasure's secrets.

Ferrigno has always had a gift for writing vivid characters, especially bad guys; his villains tend to be both really, really bad and highly charismatic. This new book has some humdingers, including the Colonel's genuinely nasty right-hand man and a shadowy, fanatical Muslim billionaire who pulls global strings from aboard his luxury yacht.

Ferrigno also has an eye for the kinds of detail that bring a setting to life. Here, he has a lot of fun inventing these touches, such as the site of the Branch Davidian disaster in Waco. It's now a tourist attraction with re-enactments of the siege and plenty of souvenirs for the kids.

This provocative, unpredictable and nuanced book — part thriller, part speculative fiction, part political novel — is the second in a projected trilogy. For the first, which was a New York Times best-seller, Ferrigno created a clever Web site, republicworldnews.com. He has since expanded this site into a compendium of fake news full of sly touches.

One faux article, for instance, states that the Islamic Music Project is finally being built here in town after years of bickering: "Traditionalists wanted the building to resemble a mosque, while avant-garde designers wanted it to be a deviation from the dome-and-minaret design that dominates Seattle's skyline." And be sure to check out the site's phony ads for such products as Pilgrimage Breakfast Cereal ("Every bite contains pistachios from Arabia!").

The first book in the trilogy, "Prayers for the Assassin," suffered slightly from the amount of exposition needed to explain Ferrigno's bold setting. (His other thrillers, including "The Horse Latitudes" and "The Wake-Up," are noirish crime novels that use the more familiar background of contemporary Southern California.) "Sins of the Assassin" integrates the futuristic setting more smoothly into Ferrigno's story, along with flashes of his mordant wit. The result is terrific — all killer, no filler.

Among Ferrigno's ongoing themes in his "Assassin" books have been the nature and value of faith. Now all we have to do is pray, to whoever or whatever, that our future doesn't really look as bad as his imaginings.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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