Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Lisbeth Salander meets Sydney Bristow in the heart of darkness

The Informationist
by Taylor Stevens

Positive word of mouth is a double-edged sword. Take The Informationist, for example. Positive reviews in the publishing trades are what first caught my eye and made me want to read this debut by an unknown author. But those same reviews significantly raised my expectations, perhaps unrealistically. I note this, because while ultimately I enjoyed The Informationist, it took me a while to get into the book. While undeniably a plot-driven action-adventure thriller, it’s really so much about character.

Specifically, it’s about Vanessa Michael Munroe, the eponymous Informationist. When asked about her work, she replies, “I go into developing countries and gather information—usually abstract and obscure—and turn it into something a corporation can use to make business decisions.” That would be a highly sanitized version of what she does. Munroe is a chameleon, changing back and forth from Vanessa Munroe to Michael Munroe as identity and gender suit her needs. She’s a harsh character, and really took some getting used to. Even now, I couldn’t describer as the least bit likable. She has no warmth, no apparent humor, and makes few attachments. Her code of morality is… situational. So much of my response to this novel had to do with my response to her, and as my attitude became more accepting, my interest in the tale being told expanded.

The core of the story is simple. Emily Burbank disappeared in a remote area of the African jungle four years ago, when she was in her late teens. One of her traveling companions turned up catatonic in a European mental institution. The fate of her other companion is unknown. After all this time, there is little hope of finding Emily alive. Nonetheless, her oil billionaire step-father has spent millions on the search. This is not Vanessa Munroe’s area of expertise, but she knows the region and the languages and is a brilliant analyst. Munroe is a last ditch effort for the closure that Richard Burbank seeks.

Of course, there’s more to it than that, but that’s enough to know going in. Most of the action takes place in Africa. Some locations were so off-the-beaten-path that I wasn’t sure they existed before a Google search. Stevens does a great job of rendering the setting, but don’t expect a jungle adventure full of exotic natives and deadly beasts. No, the scariest creatures in this book are the men. In that respect, it’s probably more realistic than many an African adventure. The story moves well enough and is plenty engaging once you get into it, but I can’t say it had that breathless, can’t-turn-the-pages-fast-enough quality that I do so love. On the other hand, I think this is a smarter, more substantive tale than many of those books.

In the end, it really does come back to character. Munroe is cut from a bit of the same cloth as Steig Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander with a dash of Alias’s Sydney Bristow. She’s impressive as hell, more than a little scary, and deeply flawed. It was interesting meeting her, but the jury is out on whether I want to spend more time in her company.


  1. Susan,

    I'm currently reading this book. I agree with your assessment completely(great minds think alike). While I'm enjoying it,the main character takes anger to a new level.I found the author's background almost as interesting as the premise for the book,how about you?

  2. Hey Craig,

    Yeah, absolutely! It's an amazing story. She'll be at Thrillerfest this year, and I'm looking forward to hearing her speak and meeting her, but I'm a little scared. It really is amazing what she's done with her life. The bio on her website says her education stopped when she was 12! She certainly writes better than many an Ivy Leaguer. And I'm sure she's lived enough experiences to fill dozens of books.

  3. Hi Susan

    Good to see you review this lovely book, I reviewed it near its release and completely loved it.

    The author's backstory also adds a certain gravitas to the story portion set in Africa, her next book THE INNOCENT deals with some of her experiences in a cult.

    I was also able to do a mini Q&A with her to go along with my review over at FBC


  4. Mihir,

    Thanks for sharing the link to your review and that awesome Q & A! Very interesting!

    So, I haven't read any other reader reviews. Is everyone comparing her to Lisbeth Salander? (And I can't believe you haven't read those books!) Yes, there are similarities, but I actually found Lisbeth more relatable and sympathetic than Vanessa somehow. I responded viscerally to Vanessa as a woman, and she was SO different than how I am, and anything that I could ever be--for better and worse. As I read, I found myself wondering how male readers would respond to her, unburdened by their own notions of femininity.

  5. Hey Susan

    Most of the reviews which I have read have compared this book to those of S. Larrson, Vanessa/Michael was a very interesting character for me. She's obviously scarred pyschologically however has managed to find a coping mechanism and is functioning as much as anybody with that type of a background can.

    I'm waiting to see more of her background revealed in THE INNOCENT, I have a theory which I want to see whether it pans out[regarding her).

    As for SL books, I somehow never got around to reading them and now I don't feel inclined to!(weird, I know)