Acts of the Assassins | Richard Beard | 2015 | Harvill Secker | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book
Acts of the Assassins is a very unusual novel. It lingers on the mind once done and can provoke some turbulent thoughts in the reader – well, in this reader anyway. As a result it’s not an easy book for me to review and so I’m taking some liberties. I normally try and avoid spoilers at all cost but with this book I can’t tell you what I think about it without letting some things slip. Therefore, this is a warning that some minor spoilers do follow. Do tread carefully.
Cassius Gallio works for the CCU, the Complex Casework Unit. He was given a task, on the surface relatively straightforward. He had to oversee the execution of a radical and watch over the burial of his body. Unfortunately for Cassius, the body disappeared from its grave – a tomb hurriedly donated to the executed man’s family by a good friend. The authorities believe that some kind of trick was played on them, that the man is not dead, that he’s still out there spreading his dissent. Not even Cassius’s informant can help him with the mystery – he was found hanged.
As a result of the disappearing corpse, Cassius is disgraced, thrown out of the service and, to cap it all, walked out on by his wife and child. But some time later, Cassius is recalled. His rank is even given a boost. It seems that something much more sinister is going on and Cassius, who knows more about the missing criminal than anyone else, is needed to solve it. The followers of the missing corpse are spreading the message of their ‘teacher’ across the world. They are also being murdered in increasingly imaginative, horrendous ways and, despite all this, none of them knows the fear of death. Cassius and his small team must seek out these followers, covering thousands of miles, and try to stop whatever it is that is happening.
But these are dangerous times. Cassius exists in a society infiltrated by secret agents and spies. Not everyone is who Cassius thinks they are, not least the man whose body Cassius watched being placed and sealed into his tomb.
It doesn’t take an astrophysicist to work out that this is a familiar tale and indeed it isn’t hidden. From the very beginning we realise that we have been taken to another place and time albeit in another dimension. This is the Roman Empire but not as it was but as it would have been today had today been back then. If you see what I mean… This is a modern world but despite its use of present day technology and accessories so familiar to all of us – planes, mobiles, cars etc – in many ways it is as ancient as the subject of the novel would suggest. This is historical fantasy meets theology meets dystopia meets spy thriller. All in all, it is very odd.
Underneath the thrillery structure – each chapter targets one particular disciple and his gory fate as Cassius pursues his quarry – lies a complex novel that touches on a whole plethora of themes, covering such big subjects as faith and early Christian history as well as the boundaries of novel writing. The missing corpse might be the catalyst for the novel but it’s Cassius who lies at the heart of the story and it’s his journey that we follow to (for example) Israel, Beirut, Turkey, Babylon, and even Britain. The apostles are widely spread. It’s Cassius who has to learn what this is all about and it transforms him in every area of his life.
I had some trouble with Acts of the Assassins. It wasn’t the gore – actually there was less gore than I was expecting – but it was the alternate history. I’m not a big fan of alternate history and this novel confirmed me in that. I have enormous trouble accepting a Roman world in the present day that still holds true to its ancient codes – where a Roman can fly on a plane and still be crucified. It’s almost like the modern world is thrown into the past, not the other way around. I couldn’t accept this and so I was doomed from the beginning. Also, the places Cassius visits, such as Babylon and England, felt alien to me – neither modern nor ancient.
However, I was compelled to finish the novel. It exerted a strange and strong influence over me, possibly in part because I read the book over the Easter weekend and I have a deep fascination for early Christianity. There was enough of that to keep me intrigued, plus I really wanted to know what was in store for Cassius. There is an atmosphere to the book that is eerily potent. The prose is marvellous. Acts of the Assassins is an astonishing novel and it turns the whole story of early Christianity on its head in a most original, imaginative and ingenious way but for me it was too alien, too unfixed in history. I am, though, a big fan of historical fiction and not much of a reader of fantasy. I think that if you are more open to such things than me then this would be a more enjoyable reading experience. Nevertheless, it’s a novel I’m very pleased I read right through to its powerful and haunting close.