Assassin. Ryan Madej. Equus Press, 2021. 120 pages.
The patience that readers of Ryan Madej’s short novel Assassin are asked to exhibit is considerable. The book is jam-packed with gnosticism and the trappings of high fantasy; those who love an epic quest narrative bristling with lots of holy objects, rituals, and tomes with proper names to master will find this book to be a good companion.
A plot synopsis of the novel is not easy to furnish. The narration bounces with not a great deal of regularity between a female assassin named Jade Palace who seems to be trekking across a post-apocalyptic Europe with a highly destructive and powerful weapon called the Wolf Solvent, and another unnamed character following in Jade’s footsteps chronicling his adventures and studying her writings left behind. The second character offered footnotes to explain the more speculative concepts in the text, and admits in such a footnote early on to a fear that his reader will find him to be unreliable. There seemed to be a system demarcating and delineating the two characters but I found I had to read with more than average care to determine which of the two “I’s” I was inhabiting; points of view shifted and, as the book went on, relied on elusive markers for clarity. I’m still not sure but I have a feeling that if a narrator was beheading another character or slitting their throat, it was Jade doing the slicing.
The violent, grisly episodes were some of the most vivid and entertaining portions of the book, intervals where you are given a break from trying to figure out what is going on in a bigger scale and just surrender to the fantasy/sci-fi violence which is handled competently. Once the blood is shed, though, and campfires or built, ancient buildings are explored, tobacco is smoked, and tea is poured, a thick fog of esoteric knowledge descends and needs penetrating.
Madej’s wasteland setting is a world with an emphasis on scriptures, scrolls, libraries of books. Both Jade the mystical adept and her pursuer are followers of the written word and engage in intense study of ancient texts they find along the way. The major landmarks or guiding objects in this dank, perplexing world seem to be the rich storehouse of esoteric knowledge and lore which seem to be all that recognizably remains of “our world.” Whatever mythical unexplained apocalypse has struck down the world we know today (references are made to mythical technologies such as “web pages”) has allowed expanses of numerology, astronomy, Hindu principles, magic, and secret geometry to survive. Outlines of these occult touchstones are given to us in the helpful footnotes but for those not fluent in this historical knowledge it can be rough going. Like many fantasy stories, the writing asks you to believe in it and participate in the dream of world-building, in this case with building blocks taken from the occult shelf of your local bookstore. This maneuver is risky as mileage may vary and fluency with esoteric wisdom literature depends on the individual reader. Those attracted to these understandings will find in Madej’s novel a diverting fountain of significance, a forbidden piece of exercise equipment for the mind.
It’s hard to draw analogies to other works of fiction by which readers might orient themselves. Assassin has light parallels with Pynchon’s V., a novel where a seeker is following the pathway through early 20th century history of a mysterious woman who may or may not represent something arcane. Here, Jade Palace definitely represents something arcane—everything does. And it’s the “may or may not” that is missing here, for better or worse. The story is a puzzle that is enamored of its own puzzling textures and rhythms and aims to evoke a point in time in our wrecked future yet does not permit something of the exact present to latch onto.
Many of the mysteries of Assassin were enjoyable but (and maybe this is a testament to my ignorance) most enjoyable were the scenes where we were taken out of the portentous fantasy prose and set down in set pieces of combat and violence—or scenes of dialogue between characters where information is doled out, controlled according to dramatic and epistemological conventions as people talk and evaluate what the other is saying. You’re given a break from needing to “know” all when you’re cast into the shoes of characters approaching each other and interacting with imperfect sets of knowledge.
Assassin is a forbidding tale that manages to navigate the Möbius strip of fantasy that is set in a place which is more or less our world, where our traditions, our magic, our old systems are let loose to claim their place instead of being relegated by modernity to the cryptic libraries of mystics and specialists. Putting such a palette of esoteric but history-bound colors onto a speculative canvas can make for enlightening art, and Equus Press has given the reader Madej’s dark, dense landscape (charmed or cursed?) to view.