Apostle Rising, by Richard Godwin, published by Black Jackal Books. Reviewed for Full Of Crow by Elynn Alexander.
In his first novel Apostle Rising, Richard Godwin emerges as a writer willing to take risks because of his confidence in the reader. He understands that on one level we want to be passively entertained, and that is what sells in a market dominated by vampire clone stories and the prattle of politicians-gone -celebrity. The rubric for success seems to include attention-getting crossover and repetition, feeding the appetite of the consumer for familiarity and predictability. In putting out a genre work- Godwin is responsive to this. Called both “police procedural” and a “psychological thriller”, there is certainly a niche market in mind. But one characteristic of a good novel is the ability to resonate with others, particularly those who don’t tend to frequent those sections in the book store, a sort of “universality” about the book’s appeal.
I am one of those readers. I don’t tend to read a lot of cop fiction, and while I wouldn’t say that I dislike crime novels, I can admit that I don’t regularly seek them out. But I loved ‘Apostle Rising’.
Godwin is a newcomer to the novelist scene, and the difficulties for an unknown writer can’t be overstated. Mistakes are made, advice taken and advice ignored, it is new territory. A first novel is an immense undertaking and I think he is to be congratulated. Here’s hoping that the strength of this debut novel will perpetuate an already viable, emboldened voice, the first of many to come.
In this era of franchise authors, the burden is high. But Godwin is able to write accessible prose without insulting the intelligence of readers, no small challenge, and he does so with sincerity because he is as put off by elitism and gratuitous pomp as we are. His is a focused style, replete with unexpected elements beset by the above mentioned “formulaic” and familiar. Among Godwin’s fans are readers who want more, expect more, and feel challenged by the layers and are willing to navigate them.
He honors the genre, he honors the formula, he delivers something that will meet a reader’s expectations and in these respects, we are satisfied. Godwin is faithful to the execution, but he has to reconcile that with a literary and often poetic style that in the end, he chooses not to suppress.
This is a strong debut novel, a thrilling read, and in it we see the author’s stylistic conflicts both surfacing, and then reconciled. In the end, we know that he has struck a balance.
Now, to the novel…
Enter the detectives, Frank Castle and Jacki Stone. From what materials are castles built? From the onset, we aren’t sure what is intentional and what is coincidental. We have to question, given the biblical references later, if there are parallels reminiscent of status and disparity, structure and parts. Society as the collection of disparate citizens that stacked, form our systems, we are in power’s configurations, aligned, even as we hold onto the desire to be pried loose.
There are some distinctly British evocations, in both the names and the references that will be immediately suggestive to some readers of a transcendent setting: the hunting grounds, the culling of deer, the hunted as threat, the culling of humans, itinerant cleansing, and the anguish of a lover in a tower, his criminal passion for a “Jezebel” unsuccessfully groomed to maternal saintliness, witness to her slaughter, captured in rhyme royal, summoned- the wife of Caesar- untamed woman, dying for a different set of sins.
The dynamic of Castle and Stone is one of asymmetry. She has the capacity for empathy and her concern is sustained. He remains a disconnected shell of a man, damaged, himself the axis on which his world rests. He is self absorbed, concerned about the perceptions of his ineptness, his ego quibbles vocalized by the taunting Karl Black. He is almost driven to the level of the killer over a news reporter, yet another nemesis, he spends much of the novel succumbed, unhinged to their taunts. He is excessively defensive about his performance. He visits the prostitutes to reassure himself of his false potency. Castle is a man unraveled, Stone seems to be his only champion.
Neither are likeable, and neither inspire my particular sympathies.
Jacki Stone has the cacophony of a women’s caucus going on inside her head. She embodies a modern enigma perhaps, with power vagueries and miscued petulance. Despite being physically attractive, she too is portrayed as under siege, “failing” to perform as wife and lover, her failed marriage another casualty, like Castle’s. Both snap quickly to violence, both fixate. Both yield easily, and lose control.
Godwin pushed my buttons with her, this apologetic and beta-cast presence of Stone who spends much of her time too easily provoked to anguish, her sense of self on consistently shaky ground. I see traits that border on a decidedly masculine rendering, but I give the author the benefit of the doubt on this, my speculations are not accusations. Nor are they easily dismissed, as I again encounter irritating descriptives with other female characters in the novel, of note Bella Torte and Flo Lane, both near caricatures of female stereotypes. For some reason, the only women in Apostle Rising that I like are the hookers.
And then something hits me about that.
Now I am hardly an author apologist and I will concede that on a certain level, I seize onto these things, such is my interpretive bias. But I think Godwin wants us to consider these traits, and consider them in the context that he has established, in connection with passages that provoke us politically.
These are women sketched in the modern landscape, with ambivalence about their looks, their self worth, their competing roles, their desire to be both authentically vulnerable and also in control. Just when you think this is all coincidental and part of some predictable male point of view, you come to understand that Godwin is NOT arbitrary, and his choices are thoughtful. To read his work is to be convinced of that, and to trust his intentions. He invokes the symbolism of the white deer, of the sexually rebellious Ann Boleyn, the politicians, the prostitutes, the brief Katlyn… because he aims to challenge us. His is not an affirmation, a nod to stereotypes, but traits placed under a lens.
Stone is quite scornful of her own, and has internalized self loathing: the inability to enjoy the liaison, her sense of guilt despite the fact that her husband has shacked up with another woman, her lack of clarity and culpability. We see her in brief contemplation about rape, amid those echoes of external voices as she herself cannot seem to wrap her mind around situational blame, the roles of victim and aggressor in need of clean resolution, the moral relativism and ambiguities of the novel itself almost played out in her questioning and sense of betrayal to her own.
Is that not the dynamic, brought down to a micro level, of the novel itself? That both crime and justice, power and service, opportunism and corruption, victim and perpetrator, vulnerable and empowered- all- are situational and relative?
We see that Castle is hardly on the right side of the law, we see that he is both driven by a sense of justice but simultaneously above it. And a self professed victim:
“What I’m saying is we don’t have their psyches, their flaws, and we walk in cold to their mutilated world. What’s the effect of that on us, Jacki? What imprint does it leave in us over the years?” (p. 236)
His sense of entitlement to both triumph and the avoidance of personal responsibility reveals the nature of his turmoil: not only the mitigation of his failures in the eyes of the “witness public” but his failure to see that he, in his weakness, is himself diminished and revealed to be not an idealist public servant but a self preservationist.
Castle is a study of ego, as much as Stone is a study of gender- marred by sporadic fits of moxie that feel empty, as Castle’s righteous indignation feels empty.
In the novel, the cult concept becomes the true element of contrast. Whether the cult of religion, the cult of ideology, the cult of consumerism… Godwin wants us to revisit our sense of the settled mind and what draws us to both fanaticism and dogma, in various forms. We want to embrace resolution, and yet there is a part of the psyche that no sooner commits to a philosophy or ideology when it sets out to find the loopholes. In Apostle Rising, we are confronted again and again with followers, again the equation of the victim in relation to perpetrator, and that fluid line.
Cult zealots attack innocent tourists. Businessmen influence corrupt politicians. Prostitutes comingled as both criminals and then the protected. The police and the criminals both break laws and pursue justice- their own sense of it.
But what is it?
Like the “white deer” that will neither be caught nor tamed, the net to the wind, the cult is a paradox of repressive, misappropriated dogma in concert with excesses of brutality- humans devolved to a depravity unseen even among animals.
Godwin references the poet Thomas Wyatt, of the tower:
Whoso list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I, may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about,
“Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.
Justice is the hunting, the search for the ground, the wind in the net, the white tailed deer, the leveraging of power, the lover in the arms of the king, authority, justice is elusive.
Though rooted in absolutes, crimes are slippery.
The hunted in “Apostle Rising” cluster on both sides, both the made and the making.
The sinners, the saviors- all overlapping, all yielding to private madness, reality only found in the blade:
“Blade knows” (p 251)
“Blade is your maker” (p 293)
In the end, Blade dictates.
In the end, Blade is the manifestation of our relationships, both real and imagined, to power. As justice is about power, as all comes down to power.
Right or wrong is relegated to the background.
What is a victim? By whose hands do we suffer?
Monsters are made, created, cultivated, monsters are the temporarily powerful, irrespective of sides.
They are monsters when their power is asserted, as the blade renders the flesh.
Power is quite simply: he who wields the blade.