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In this timely and relevant suspense novel, Canadian Intelligence analyst, Jason Currie, is chosen by his government to liaise with the Untied States SECOR agency, a greatly expanded and highly efficient version of Homeland Security. Jason's mission is to demonstrate to the Americans that Canada is a committed ally in the war and the fight against terrorism.
But before Jason can report to the SECOR L.A. office to begin his assignment, he experiences firsthand the arbitrary nature of how America now detains ordinary citizens for even the slightest suspicion. While attempting to enter the country, he's stopped and escorted to a holding cell, supposedly because his name is on a list. The name on the list is Kouri, his original Lebanese family name before immigrating to Canada, changed by his father years ago to Currie.
As Jason is transported to a camp in the desert and inducted into the expanded wartime detention system, he is well aware that he could easily disappear without ever having the chance to clear up the misunderstanding over his identity. Only rescue by the American General to whom he was supposed to report in Los Angeles could save him from that fate.
This novel depicts an increasingly extremist United States, battered by the effects of global warming and war. The country has become paranoid and fearful, severely restricting the rights of its citizens and detaining them in large numbers without due process.
In Jason's case, even though he's a Christian, he's been detained because of his recent trip to the Middle East to visit relatives. In the case of another prisoner Jason meets, even though the man has lived in America for 40 years, he's detained for being an unemployed Muslim stonemason who has come to California to learn about the fate of his son, an imam, jailed for speaking out against American policies. And Jason's longtime close friends, he finds out later in the story, have reacted by growing more hard-line, or by speaking out and as a result, being forced to flee the country.
Arthur Lawrence masterfully crystallized a "what if" scenario of the potential ramifications that hard-line government security policies can have on ordinary citizens if a culture of fear is allowed to take hold. This intriguing and, frighteningly so, realistic novel portrays a future that none of us would wish to experience, in which our government could become, indeed, a "fearful master."
Fearful Master would likely be a decent read at any time, but right now - 2015 -the book is downright terrifying. Lawrence presents a dystopian present that we could so easily slip into. It's a world that could easily evolve into the ones presented in Orwell's "1984", Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" or even Atwood's "A Handmaid's Tale". Big Brother surveillance. Suppression of media. Religious fanaticism. The arena scene with Vice President Anita Skye especially reminded me of the public execution in "A Handmaid's Tale".
The story follows one character, Jason Currie, and everything unfolds from his perspective, but it is told in the third-person. Jason is neither repulsive nor compelling. He's imperfect: brilliant at some things (math) and completely inept at others (seeing the big picture). He is hardly a typical hero, as he is primarily motivated by self-interests (rescuing a family-friend-turned-lover), but he also demonstrates an innate morality that would appeal to most readers.
I find the depiction of Canada and Canadians in this novel amusing. Like the protagonist, Canada itself is self-interested and a naive. Lawrence's Canada still enjoys freedom of the press, freedom of movement and the right to due process, and it hasn't been overcome by religious fanatics. This Canada ( perhaps a bit too much like the real Canada) is self-interested and understands that it is in its own best interests to play nice with its powerful neighbour.
I'm not sure if Americans could see the portrayal of their own nation as "amusing", especially since current events like the Syrian Refugee Crisis and Donald Trump's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination seem like they could be coming right out of the novel. This quote from Donald Trump actually describes the America in the book quite well: "We're going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule... and certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we're going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago." (NY Times, 2015/11/21). Lawrence's America may be "too close for comfort".
About the story-telling. The book has some natural stopping points that allowed me to put the book down long enough to get a good night's sleep, but it was also compelling enough to want to pick it up again quickly to see how the story would resolve. I have to confess that despite the back cover's promise of "twists and turns", nothing about the plot or the characters really surprised me. That's not to say that the book wasn't enjoyable. Aside from a silly "This is not the end of the story. It may only be a beginning," line on the last page and a few odd sentence structures and tenses (bad editing, perhaps?), I have no complaints. I've found myself talking about the book and wanting to share it with friends and family because it is both timely and accessible.
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