Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
When Abraham Khan releases a book condemning radical Islam, the consequences hit fast and hard: an armed fanatic smashes into his home one evening, trying to kill him. He survives, just barely. But will he survive next time?
Back when I was growing up in Nelson, I read about Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie going into hiding because a fatwa (order of death) had been issued on him by the Ayatollah of Iran, as Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses was seen by the religious leader as blasphemous. As a youngster, this situation both intrigued and horrified me - how could you want to assassinate someone for writing a book? This went far, far beyond book banning or book burning, which are both bad enough in of themselves. But killing someone for writing a fictional story?
Malaysian-born Kiwi author John Ling crafts his fast-paced indy-published debut from a Rushdie-esque starting point (although interestingly it was actually the situation of a lesser-known but equally important real-life author, Taslima Nasreen, that inspired the tale, according to Ling himself).
Abraham Khan is a moderate Muslim who has written a book condemned as blasphemous by Islamic extremists, who issue a death sentence on the author. Khan had sought asylum and is living in New Zealand, seemingly as far away from conflicts and terrorism threats as he could be. But it's not far enough, as he and his new wife are attacked in their home. Was it an attempt to carry out the fatwa, or is something else going on? Khan's wife and those assigned to protect him want Khan to step back from public life, but he is not keen. He doesn't want to hide, and he doesn't want to stay silent.
Khan is assigned protection from a private agency that has links to the police. Section One operative Maya Raines, daughter of 'the dragon lady' in charge of the agency, is our main protagonist, and we follow her efforts to try to keep Khan alive, and work out where the true threats lie. Maya is a no-nonsense pro who can handle herself well when it comes to weapons and action, but her life is complicated by the political machinations both within her agency, and imposed from the outside.
The Prime Minister of New Zealand has taken a particular interest in Khan, wanting to demonstrate to the world that his country is a safe and peaceful place, and he attaches his own operative.
With The Blasphemer, Ling crafted a pretty impressive debut, especially for a self-published author that hasn't had the editing or other support of a traditional publisher. The story flows well as a fast-paced international thriller, while Ling also salts in plenty of intriguing insights into the Islamic world, delving deep beyond headlines or what readers may think they know. The book almost comes across as a blend of high-octane 'airport thriller' and well-researched but very readable dissertation.
Ling clearly has plenty of insight into the wider Muslim world, which is far more complex, multi-layered, and heterogeneous than media coverage of the Middle East may convey. He's crafted a story that for me hit the sweet spot where you read something for pure entertainment, but it also delivers interesting facts or perspectives about real-life subject matter, without slowing down the story.
Importantly, I never felt 'lectured to' while reading The Blasphemer; it hurtles along at a good pace, with plenty of action and intrigue. At its centre, Maya is a strong heroine, interesting and capable.
That's not to say the book is without its flaws. I'd put it in the 'good' category - I enjoyed it, would read more from this author, but there were blips here and there. I was pleasantly surprised, and it offered a lot more than I expected, but some elements were a little thin or rushed.
Overall, The Blasphemer is an enjoyable read that shows plenty of promise, delivering moments of thrilling action along with some broader insight into the wider world around us.
On a related matter, if you'd like to read more about the Salman Rushdie situation (as I did while writing this review), you can find a surprisingly comprehensive overview, which has many details about the so-called offending passages, the Ayatollah's true motivations, the reactions around the world, and more, here. It's a fascinating insight into how readers interpret art from their perspective, along with how issues spread through groups or societies based on headlines rather than substance.
I originally read this book in late 2012, and have commented on The Blasphemer here on Crime Watch in the past, but I have not published a full review of the book until now.
Craig Sisterson is a journalist from New Zealand who writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 140 crime writers, discussed crime fiction at literary festivals and on radio, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson