Narrator: Jonathan Yen
Published by Tantor Audio on 9 June 2015
Length: 9 hrs and 36 mins
Genres: Dystopian, Horror
Source: Publisher, Submitted
Jonah Murtag is an Acolyte on the New Bethlehem police force. His job is to eradicate all heretical religious faiths, their practitioners, and artifacts. Murtag's got problems - one of his partners is a zealot, and he's in love with the other one. Trouble at work, trouble at home. Murtag realizes that you can rob a citizenry of almost anything, but you can't take away its faith. When a string of bombings paralyzes the city, religious fanatics are initially suspected, but startling clues point to a far more ominous perpetrator. If Murtag doesn't get things sorted out, the Divine Council will dispatch the Quints, AKA Heaven's Own Bagmen. The clock is ticking towards doomsday for the Chosen of New Bethlehem. And Jonah Murtag's got another problem, the biggest and most worrisome: he isn't a believer anymore.
©2015 Nick Cutter (P)2015 Tantor
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I always like a good book that gives the religious-right a much-deserved solid kick in the tuchus. When I heard of Nick Cutter’s The Acolyte, shortly after reading his previous horror novel The Deep, I was more than slightly curious to see his take on American Christian extremism run amok. That said, this book isn’t for the squeamish, the easily-offended, or those who are afraid of having their beliefs challenged. Cutter takes a no holds barred approach, confronting right-wing extremism head on in such a fashion that the hand-wringing crowd would likely deem “offensive.”
The story opens with Acolyte Jonah Murtag recalling a scene he witnessed as a child, during The Purges, in which a mentally handicapped Muslim boy is beaten, tied to his bicycle, and then set on fire. It’s a powerful opening, and sets the tone for what follows. The Acolyte is a dark work of dystopian fiction, and also one that is bleakly satirical. Looking at the current slate of GOP nominees, most of whom have publicly admitted to hearing voices in their heads and Kasich’s recent proposal to develop an arm of the government devoted to spreading religious propaganda, the Starbucks red cup scares, and a particular Kentucky Court Clerk, this story is way too plausible, which makes it scarily effective.
Cutter takes America’s present-day culture wars against far-right religiosity to a bold new level with a story that quite clearly illustrates that faith is not a virtue. Separation of Church and State is no more – in fact, The Church is the state, and the US operates under the biblical mandates set forth in the New Republican Testament. As an officer of the Faith Crimes unit, Murtag’s duties are to ensure the purity of belief among the citizens of New Bethlehem, rooting out the cultist scourges of Scientologists, Mormons, and homosexuals so they can be sent to conversion camps, where their skulls are cut open and the sin is burnt out of their brains (presuming these “criminals” survive the police raids long enough to make it so far as being arrested).
After being assigned to protect The Prophet’s daughter, Eve, and failing when a suicide bombers strikes the nightclub she parties at, Murtag finds himself wounded and accused of terrorism simply for surviving. After enduring a brutal interrogation, and plenty of string pulling for those On High, he is allowed to be reinstated as an Acolyte and charged with finding the perpetrators behind the increasing spate of terror attacks. What follows is a twisty, noir-tinged narrative that follows in the mold of classic detective fiction with plenty of violence, femme fatales, con artists, and criminal conspiracy.
The world Murtag inhabits is very well realized, with Cutter drawing on Biblical elements that most believers gloss over or outright ignore, crafting New Bethlehem has a horrendously regressive, pre-Englightment dungeon of sorts. When Murtag goes to confession after murdering a Scientologist, he has to pick a properly-sized animal to sacrifice in a spiritual blood cleansing ritual. The female Acolyte, Doe, Murtag tells us, has hit the limits of her profession thanks to the glass ceiling put in place by Leviticus, which demands she earn less shekels than the men around her because she has the wrong set of genitals. Abortions, of course, are illegal and men have the option of ensuring the viability of their woman’s pregnancy with strong-armed toughs. One bombing victim is left to the care of a hospital where nurses are praying for him around the clock and even have their best practitioner sitting at his bedside. Actual medicine, along with forensic science, has long since been outlawed, you see. Eve’s corpse, meanwhile, becomes a Vaudevillian stage-show prop in The Prophet’s ministrations, an act that would no doubt make him the envy of many real-life prosperity preachers. Cutter gives plenty of details on life following The Purge, most of them horrifying, to illustrate how badly the nation has fallen and in which religious extremism is a part of daily life, infecting the minds and actions of the entire society. As Murtag is keenly aware, and is forced to discover first-hand, it’s a very thin line separating saints from sinners.
Jonathan Yen’s narration is pitch-perfect for the tone of this book. He has a gritty, almost-gravely, style that lends itself beautifully to the first-person noir elements that are pervasive in Cutter’s writing, giving the book a sort of L.A. Confidential by way of religious fundamentalism vibe. Murtag is a straight Joe Friday-type, and Yen voices the Just The Facts, Ma’am sensibility wonderfully, but also adopts some natural voice-work for ancillary characters, with his performance of The Quints, a murderous batch of quintuplets, suitably scary and effective. The production values are top-notch, too, with nary a hiccup in the nine-plus hours of listening time.
Part horror story, part word of warning, listeners of The Acolyte should at find themselves thankful that this story is only fiction.