Review | Justice! by: Heath Daniels

Somali ISIS in Backwoods Texas

In Heath Daniels’ Justice!,I found a mature author leading me through an engaging story of modern socio-political intrigue with a wonderful human touch. When reading the synopsis from Mr. Daniels’ website, I thought this sounded like a story I would like because I follow international news and post 9/11 Muslim American relations quite closely – as anyone whose 18th Birthday fell on that fateful day in 2001 must (yours truly). The story that unfolds in this novel is torn from the headlines, keeping the reader enthralled because of the unique characters and backstory that Daniels crafts.

This book is the third in a series of novels that follow the lives and careers of the main characters, but can – and is intended to – be read independently of the other two titles, Three Kisses and Day of Judgement. I picked this up from the afterword, and indeed, I never felt like I missed out on backstory. This is also a strong nod to the author’s interweaving of the previous plots into Justice! The story takes place during the height of the ISIS scare of 2014-2015, and places a group of Somali refugees into very small-town Texas. The full arc of the story goes from about Christmas 2013 through October 2016, with a final section that catapults to a distant Fall of 2035.

Southwest Crime Writing Goodness!

The tone and feel of Daniels’ work reminded me a bit of some of my favorite Southwestern crime and detective writers like Tony Hillerman and Craig Johnson. This may only be a result of my Northeasterner background, and feeling that any crime genre stories set in the modern American west have similarities. Admittedly, this is a gross over generalization. However, my Dad is a native Texan, born and raised in Austin. So, I have some additional frame of reference for this story which is so much a Texas tale. Additionally, my paternal grandmother was an art professor at the University of Texas Austin, which allowed me to connect with all of the academic threads that exist in Justice!

In fact, the higher education themes that are prevalent throughout the book probably deserve a bit of attention here. The author is a retired professor so it is only natural that he “writes what he knows”, as the saying goes. I found this to be a great strength, in some cases – a redeeming factor – of the book.

The novel is a solid, and engaging one – as I’ve mentioned. However, the usage of internal dialogue (brought out in italics throughout the book) is a bit heavy-handed at times. I agree with those critics who think that the extended usage of character’s internal thoughts in prose is a difficult thing to pull off. It is a rare book where this is done well (think Dune), and even harder to do well in movies. Daniels does it quite a bit with the protagonist Yusef (Joseph) Shaito. It works some of the time, but I came away feeling like it was more so the author’s personal opinions about topics than the characters’ in many instances. Now, let me be clear – it didn’t detract from the overall intrigue and plot pacing – so, not a hard knock on the book.

Texas District Attorneys, Professors & Imams?

Here’s where the academic bona fides comes in… The use of colleges and Universities as the backdrop for much of the story is well crafted. Whenever cultural expertise is required for a character’s development and portrayal, Daniels’ own knowledge of international relations shines through. For instance, in Chapter 2 of Book 2 – “Disentanglement” – when Yusef is discussing Muslim tradition with Agent Flores (FBI) regarding a comatose Somali refugee victim of a hate crime, he says, “She might not speak to me […] Muslim women, if they’re strict, aren’t supposed to speak to men with whom they’re not closely related. Depending on how strict or how brainwashed she is, she may not speak to me even in an emergency, nor to a male doctor.” It is this application of the understanding of Muslim tradition, and its many layers of intricacy throughout the cultural traditions of the dozens of nations where Islam is practiced, that struck me as a great strength of this work.

Not only do these types of expert, real-world, cultural opinions shine through in the form of characters throughout the book, but they are the type of thing I realized most authors often need to research extensively when writing a book. It seems this writer has spent 30+ years doing the research and is now just having fun putting it into his own stories.

While not the only test of a good read; for better or worse, the engagement factor is often the biggie. I found this book to be a page-turner for sure. All novels have sections that “move” faster than others. I kept finding myself drawn into the sections where the main characters of Yusef and Nisrine were cultivating their budding romance. Not only was it well constructed in an authorly way – meaning the supporting characters like Omar, Jason and Brad (Yusef’s friends) and Husey and Nisrine’s parents helped build up the relationship of the main characters; I also found the Lebanese American bonds between the romantic partners to be very engrossing.

Coming to America – Diversity, Religion, Law…Tolerance

Whether the plot of a Somali/ISIS type of mosque bombing in small-town Texas in 2015 is too close to reality or not, doesn’t really matter to me. If anything, it helps to draw a reader in, because we should all be pretty familiar with the plausibility of such a “real crime” scenario playing out. What I like best about Justice! is that it does a wonderful job of portraying the complexities of modern Muslim-American relations. This is essentially a portrait of 21st century melting-pot America, and it helps to further illustrate why we all need to step-back and walk a mile in another person’s shoes before jumping to any conclusions.

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