Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Strong, Savvy, Sensitive, and Yes, Very Scary: Vanessa Michael Munroe Returns in THE DOLL by Taylor Stevens

I'm one of the gazillions of female readers who look forward to a new thriller from Lee Child, or an intense espionage investigation from Olen Steinauer or Alan Furst, and of course a regional police procedural from Archer Mayor or Craig Johnson ... and in fact, it wasn't until a few years ago that I realized that all the characters I identified with for years in the Lord of the Rings trilogy were guys. Honestly, I think it's easy for most of us to connect with a protagonist who makes emotional sense for us, no matter the gender.

And there's something about Vanessa Michael Munroe -- better known just as Michael to her friends -- that catches me at the heart level and makes me enormously proud of her. She's an information specialist (Taylor Stevens's earlier books in the series are The Informationist and The Innocent), a born linguist, and a wealthy business co-owner. Her work takes her all over the world, and as a single and slender woman in the realms of power, she's got to be able to defend herself with more than just words. She knows how.

But along with Munroe's strength, defensive skills, and fancy knife work come the weight and horror of a past rife with abuse, where she learned to fight off abusers in order to survive. Keep her busy and she's tops in her field; let things slow down, and the darkness of the past can knock her into deep and crippling depression. (Can you relate?)

THE DOLL opens with a shockingly impossible moment: Michael's partner Miles Bradford, watching from the office window, witnesses the highly unlikely -- and therefore impeccably choreographed -- kidnapping of Munroe right in front of him. Horrified and at first scrambling against a glassy surface of lack of information, Bradford has little chance of racing to Munroe's rescue; only if she finds a way to contact him will he know what to do.

Meanwhile, the kidnap team is having second thoughts, and the thoughts are that whoever lined this up has a bunch of ridiculous rules about Vanessa Michael Munroe:
Do not let her hear your language, the source had said, she will use language as a weapon. Keep the area around her free of objects, everything will be used as a weapon. Stay clear of her reach, she doesn't need a weapon to kill you. Don't use restraints, she will find a way out of them, and they will only give a false sense of safety. Do not touch her, the source said. Leave her in peace, and treat her respectfully, only then will the violence stay muted. Disrespect these and make no mistake, she will kill you.
It's easy to assume Munroe's fragile and frightenable; she's female and small and pretty. But that's not who she is on the inside. Inside, she's a tornado, an earthquake, an irresistible force with brilliance of mind and a compulsion to solve problems.

Soon enough, Munroe meets the depraved but highly intelligent and well-informed person behind her capture: the Doll Man, a merchant who feeds the hunger of collectors of real women, through turning them into dolls who can then be abused, abased, kept in captivity. Can he keep Munroe? It doesn't seem likely, but he's come up with carrots and sticks that involve the people she loves -- and soon she'll take his orders, in order to save her friends and family. Wouldn't you?

And there is the catch, the hook, the way that Taylor Stevens binds us to this protagonist unforgettably. What we value most -- our commitment to the people we care about -- is what Vanessa Michael Munroe can't escape. How hard can she fight, and how much can she risk, in order to bring the global criminals around her to justice?

I'm not always comfortable with Munroe -- just the way I stop to ask myself whether I'd let Lee Child's Jack Reacher into the house. Stevens twists this intense thriller so effectively that Munroe's questions become the ones the reader faces, too.

Oh, you don't need to read the two preceding books in the series before reading THE DOLL. But I'd recommend it, because then you'll notice how Munroe is growing, in the hands of a powerful novelist. Be sure to check out the author's website, but not until you've read at least one of the books:  Or, if you've got to peek first, remember Leonard Nimoy telling Star Trek fans, "I am not Spock." Taylor Stevens is not the same as her protagonist; if you have a moment, add your comments here, and give this author the gift of seeing her fiction as creative work, far beyond the pain of her own past. Come to think of it ... that's what she asks us to believe of Vanessa Michael Munroe, too.

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