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.
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.