Belying the book's title and high-tech looking cover, Taylor Stevens's debut work, The Informationist, is a decidedly low-tech, old fashioned action-adventure novel. You won't find exotic weaponry or computer hardware here; characters are dispatched with knives and the quick twist of a head, and information is gathered through interviews and keen deduction instead of via an Internet search. The traditional format employed here works very well set against the milieu of equatorial Africa.
Stevens's writing style is elaborately descriptive, allowing readers to paint detailed mental pictures of the scenes she is trying to conjure:
They moved from their stomachs to a crouch and, as they covered distance and the silence deepened, to a full walk. And then thirst and time became the enemies... It would have been different during the rains, when red clay mud would ooze through their clothes, into their hair, across their faces, and would sting when it mixed with sweat and dripped into their eyes and the taste of it filled their mouths. It would have coated their skin and worked as camouflage and kept the biting insects at bay. And the rain that transmogrified the clay into mud would have been plentiful and easily quenched their thirst. But the rains had begun to dissipate weeks ago.
The language does get a bit self-consciously ornate at times, but overall it does little to slow the book's momentum. The action is non-stop from start to finish as the heroine races through cities and jungles, encountering danger at every turn. And while the main villain is apparent early on, the plot twists are creative and will keep readers guessing about the identity of the bad guy's accomplice until the very end of the novel. The story also holds together fairly well, never becoming silly, always making sense (although, as with most thrillers, readers do need to suspend disbelief from time to time to fully enjoy the book).
Although The Informationist is without a doubt well-written, what makes this novel rise above the majority of main-stream thrillers is its main character, Vanessa Michael Munroe. The daughter of missionary parents and raised in Cameroon, Munroe's teenage rebellion led her into rough company, and these toughs helped hone her natural talents into extraordinary tactical and fighting abilities. Many reviewers have compared her to Stieg Larsson's heroine Lisbeth Salander, but I think that's a misrepresentation; she's far more like a female version of the fast-thinking, action-oriented Jason Bourne than the cool and calculating Salander. It seems like it would have been easy to fall into the trap of turning this larger-than-life character into a two-dimensional cartoon, but Stevens does a wonderful job fleshing her out and bringing her to life. Monroe is believable - tough, yet vulnerable.
Not as convincing are Stevens's male characters. One is ex-Special Forces, the other a brutal drug runner, yet both cede control to Monroe rather easily; they're a bit too willing to accept her as their leader and blindly follow her directives. This is a minor quibble though, as these characters are nevertheless well-developed and surprisingly likeable.
In short, The Informationist has everything it takes to be a top-notch thriller: great characters, good pacing, exotic locales, and an intricate plot that more or less makes sense. Although the protagonist is female, this shouldn't deter hard-core thriller fans who may be used to a male character in the lead role. Anyone who enjoys well-written action-adventure novels will likely find this one well worth their time.
Author Taylor Stevens spent her formative years working and living in a communal apocalyptic cult called The Children of God, and with them she traveled across nearly two dozen countries, begging on city streets. This nomadic way of life sent her to East and West-Central Africa, the primary settings for The Informationist. For more information about her fascinating upbringing, visit her bio page.
This review was originally published in April 2011, and has been updated for the October 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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