Narrator: Hillary Huber
Series: Vanessa Michael Munroe #1
Published by Random House Audio on 3/8/11
This audiobook is an engaging thriller with excellent pacing, an intriguing setting, a protagonist you may or may not like (but will feel compelled to follow), well-constructed supporting characters, and good narration. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Will I buy the next one in this series (out in late December)? Yes. In audio, please.
Vanessa “Michael” Munroe is a complex woman. Raised in central Africa by missionary parents, her uncanny facility for languages in combination with an adolescence spent on the wrong side of the law has given her a unique skill-set. She makes her living gathering information, usually from third world countries, on behalf of large corporations. She’s also a bit of a feral creature. Oh, she maneuvers in society just fine but she’s never lost her atavistic instinct for taking in all available stimuli and interpersonal cues and generating a threat assessment. This is a large part of what makes her so successful: her ability to identify the right buttons to push to get people to talk and a near-psychic talent at wringing every possible nuance out of a conversation. Her professional life allows her respite from her inner turmoil but when she isn’t working, she’s an adrenaline junkie who uses the thrill of pushing herself to the limit to manage her inner demons. And oh boy, does she have demons.
When her friend and lawyer (and what I can only describe as her handler) Kate Breeden calls her from Texas with an assignment, Munroe reluctantly agrees to fly from Turkey to Dallas to meet with the man making the job offer. Richard Burbank, head of Titan Oil, offers Munroe more money than she can turn down to find out what happened to his daughter. Emily Burbank disappeared several years previously while touring Africa with two companions. Munroe is intrigued by the complexity of following the cold trail and finds herself drawn back to the region where she grew up. Richard’s security consultant, Miles Bradford, has compiled a dossier of the investigative efforts to-date and when the contents of that file send Munroe to Germany to interview the only one of Emily’s companions known to have made it out of Africa, she is able to determine that Emily’s trail disappeared in Equatorial Guinea. Forced to allow Miles to accompany her, Munroe travels to Africa.
The Place it all Began
(I’ve marked this next bit as a potential spoiler. Personally I don’t consider it one but since it references events not specifically detailed until mid-way into the book and they have a direct impact on what makes Munroe the person she is I decided ‘better safe that burned at the spoiler stake’)View Spoiler »At fourteen, Munroe left her parent’s home and took a job with Francisco Beyard: a contraband dealer eleven years her senior. At fifteen, the inclusion in Beyard’s team of the mercenary Pieter Willem turned Munroe’s life into a living hell. Willem’s training sessions in martial arts and knife fighting soon turned from painful instruction to torture sessions that culminated in rape. Desperate to escape, Munroe killed Pieter and left Africa without a word to Beyard, severing the fragile bond that had started growing between them. « Hide Spoiler
Now back in Equatorial Guinea, Munroe is working her way through a corrupt political apparatus looking for clues to Emily’s location. A betrayal nearly ends her life and sends her in search of Francisco Beyard and the help he is uniquely suited to give her. Unresolved issues between them makes for an uneasy alliance as they continue the search for the missing woman and try to determine exactly who wants Munroe dead.
I love books that take me someplace I have no real concept of (They speak Spanish in Equatorial Guinea? I had no idea.) The people and locations in Africa are described in a way that allowed me to build a strong mental picture of how the characters interacted with their physical world. In conjunction with well-crafted secondary characters, this negated the two minor complaints I had which were an inability to really connect with Munroe until close to the end of the story because of her ultra-practical and unemotional decision-making and a wish to hear more emotion conveyed in the narration. The pacing in this story kept me glued to my earphones and the unraveling of who was responsible for which nefarious deed, while not providing a huge surprise at the end, did include some interesting twists in motivations.
Hillary Huber’s narration was good. Her vocal style matched well with Munroe’s tough-as-nails persona and her male character voices were excellent. The various voices were easily distinguished from one another and, although I have zero basis for comparison, the accents employed sounded good and never gave me pause in regards to their authenticity. I didn’t pull as much emotional content from the narration as I think the story indicated but the silky and inexorable delivery worked extremely well with the story’s pacing.
The Part Where I Realize I Still Have More to Say But Not in Any Kind of Organized Fashion
It’s not surprising that I enjoyed Munroe’s character and deconstructing her motivations; she reminds me of a combination of two of my favorite mystery/thriller tough female survivors: my intro to that character type when I was in junior high, Modesty Blaise from the Peter O’Donnell books/comics, and the heart-breaking and completely sociopathic Kathy Mallory from Carol O’Connell’s incredibly well-written series. Munroe has a nice blend of the amazing survival skills of the former combined with the “I’m not quite sure you’re psychologically sound” aspect of the latter.
I’m rather fond of the character construct wherein the protagonist emerges from a difficult past stronger than might be expected (usually with fissures in their emotional armor that blow open spectacularly at some point). I think of it as a version of the post-apocalyptic scenario except it’s an emotional apocalypse and we get to watch how those who survive start to put the pieces of their life back together and even thrive in their changed emotional landscape. Munroe certainly fits that bill. While I found her a fascinating character to watch as she wound her way through the story, I remained at an emotional distance. It was a little bit like watching a bug trying to navigate a man-made obstacle course. Objectively interesting but I don’t necessarily feel a personal interest in its success. In part, I think it is because as written, Munroe spends the majority of the story with an extremely practical outlook. For example, her decision making process in regards to sexual encounters was generally “how will it benefit me?” and sex was used as a tool to manipulate the other person.
Without a doubt, Munroe is an intriguing character. I get the impression that being around her would be a bit like having a maltreated pit bull around. She could very well tear out your throat if she feels you’re a threat but she can also snuggle up beside you, usually for her own reasons. Her fear of becoming the monster that Willem was making of her has driven her to keep such a tight reign on all her emotions that she’s lost contact with all but the anger that fuels her and when she is forced to face/feel a strong ‘positive’ emotion (such as love or fear for the welfare of others) it’s like water on the fire that drives her survival and she feels like “…a fire without a source of fuel”.
Her ability to tease meaning from conversations was, as mentioned above, bordering on psychic. Nominally defined as a hyper-alertness to inflection, I think I would have bought into it more if it had been described differently: perhaps as an awareness and ability to read micro-expressions and eye movement as well as her ability to interpret inflection to such a high degree that seems to be part of her uncanny language skills.
Overall, a good listen and one I recommend.