In this tough, mature teen novel, Sam Mills melds an unholy trinity of terrorism, romance and religious fervour as we follow the ultimately tragic journey of 16-year-old Jon from vulnerable, emotionally adrift schoolboy to bit-part player in a palm-dampening, page-turning juggernaut of horrifically misguided loyalties.
Jon's absent father is an adulterous vicar, so the cracks in the Christian belief he’s been indoctrinated in since birth are present before his fateful response to the overtures of the charismatic, sly Jeremiah. Alas, there’s no chance for the light to get in through these cracks, as he’s soon abandoned one shaky set of beliefs for another.
The sense of isolation and the burning need to belong are almost always misidentified as adolescent, rather than simply human. But if we feel things most keenly the first time we experience them, this state is an acute one for teenagers. In recent history, subcultural groups fulfilled this tribal sense of belonging. Here Jon, along with four other troubled teenage boys, responds to Jeremiah’s offer of ‘brotherhood’ just as millions of vulnerable people have to the bejewelled promises of religion since time immemorial. Their subsequent actions mark them as the very definition of terrorists, yet they appear blinded by their own belief.
Lacking empathy and a sense of nuance, the members of the Brotherhood of Hebetheus (which has a sci-fi ring to it – what better way to attract teenage boys?) wish to “correct the mistakes of past religions” but fail to see their new belief system is as narrow, intolerant, fundamentalist, dogmatic and quick to contradict its basic tenets as any ‘past’ religions. It offers nothing new – even the concepts of heaven and hell are traditional ("…people who never understand us… they’ll go to hell”).
Their ‘God’ is also hilariously non-specific. He isn’t ‘God’ – he’s their God, another God. This is as good a device as any to highlight the absurdity of multitudinous Gods, worshipped by equally multitudinous groups, all convinced of their position. Mills’ use of satire is strong when dealing with all this, especially the inherent contradictions (“Jeremiah often speaks of the Paradox of the Divine”), the misogyny ("the women… were devoted slaves") and the chasm between their violent plans for Padma and their supposed creed ("we shall always act in peace and never harm another human being").
Alongside the satire run allegorical threads about the detention of terrorists at Guantanamo Bay (Padma is assumed guilty till proven innocent) and the Bush-Blair defence of the Iraq War, as illustrated through Jeremiah’s insistence that it isn’t wrong or ‘sinful’ to kill (innocent) people if you believe more lives might be saved as a result.
Padma, the lone femme of the main narrative, remains something of an enigma throughout. She’s not an underwritten character – her defiance and quick responses to the Brotherhood’s trite homilies scotch any sense of that. But she’s taciturn when responding to Jon’s obviously tender feelings for her, which is key to later plot developments. For example, when Jon is led to believe she’s been employing the same doe-eyed tactics with the other boys, it sets off a chain of shocking events. Does this mean Padma really is duplicitous, as Jeremiah would have Jon believe, or was she simply being resourceful in her desperation?
In a way, the ‘romance’ between Padma and Jon seems oddly chaste – we’re talking about teenagers here after all. But perhaps this is deliberate, for after all religion is often used as a tool to repress sexuality, and at one point, Jon muses on the fact that he hasn’t had to worry about girls “anymore” since joining the Brotherhood. However this repression only appears to manifest itself not in purity, but more misogyny, as demonstrated by Jon’s violent destruction of a topless pin-up photo – almost a symbolic murder (“I tear her body to pieces, stuff her dead remains in a sack”).
There’s also the matter of religious conversion of the very young, a clear contemporary issue given the rise of eastern religions in the west. Mills’ novel adds fresh perspectives on why people turn – a question that’s vital to understand even for the non- and anti-religious. Capitalist society offers no comfort to the thoughtful ("… doing a job you don’t like and the rest of the time sleeping to have enough energy to do the job you don’t like"), and if you’re a 16-year-old on the cusp of becoming a cog in that machine for the next 50 years, it’s not hard to see why religion might seem like a comforting option. It’s also easy to believe it’s something one can’t fail at, owing to the supposed infinitely merciful nature of God (the absurd teenage fear of failure is touched upon in the novel: “What’s the point of celebrating failure? We’re not going to fail”). Yet Jon’s ‘faith’ fails and returns time and again, valiantly rising up in him even as his brief life is violently taken away, highlighting the irony of lives wasted in anticipation of paradise.