It seems everyone is a NY Times Bestselling Author these days, so that's not why I picked Taylor Stevens' new novel The Innocent (Crown Publishers 2011) from my Amazon Vine offering last month. It is the story of Hannah, kidnapped at the age of five and forced to grow up as part of a sexually-oriented, backward cult (which sounds to be based on a group to which Stevens herself belonged in her early years). Even after eight years, her mother won't stop searching for her and begs Vanessa Michael Munroe, the heroine from Stevens' debut thriller The Informationist, to use her prodigious physical and mental skills to track down and save her child. Within the first chapters, it becomes clear that Munroe (who calls herself Michael) is as effective in combat as the world-saving Scott Harvath, albeit darker than even the inimitable Jason Bourne. When Munroe saves a child about to be gang-raped by destroying the miscreants, we learn that Munroe is fraught with demons so powerful she dreads going to sleep, so fearful is she of what she will do when she can no longer control her actions. By rescuing this kidnapped girl, Munroe hopes to exorcise her own evil and reclaim the life she used to enjoy.
The prologue powerfully introduces the story with three pages of non-stop action and musty intrigue, but the story stalled soon after. Yes, I was achingly curious, but Taylor left holes in the story, unexplained actions and unfounded emotions, so I began to feel distanced from her main characters, Logan and Munroe. There were hints of a dark, intimidating past, one that was likely fleshed out in the prequel, The Informationist and shaped the thoughts and actions of the two friends, but I wasn't in on the secrets. I really wished I'd read that novel first. And learning about Logan--the man responsible for involving Munroe in rescuing the child--through the eyes of the narrator and Munroe seemed to be contradicted by his actions. On the one hand, he is characterized as calm, unflappable, competent, but on the other, he seeks Munroe's approval and worries too much. Again, I wrote it off to believing that this book was too dependent upon the prior novel. Maybe it should have been called Part II.
One other drawback: In the development of Munroe, I felt a bit off-balance throughout the story. In that usual thriller way, Munroe is bigger than life, but damaged by her past. The further into the story I got, the more I cared for her and worried that her demons would derail her goals, but I always felt a little behind the curve as far as understanding her motivations. I'm assuming that the prequel provided the foundation for what drives Munroe. It didn't help that some of the scene transitions made me pause, re-read to be sure I didn't miss something.
In the end though, those concerns paled in light of Stevens plotting, pacing and ability to ratchet up the drama. Munroe's character--a strong, sexy physical woman--is needed more often in thrillers. Sure, there are competent female fighters, but Munroe didn't learn her skills so much as they are her. Though the story lacks any supporting actors/actresses of merit, Munroe is the bigger than life protagonist that is central to any successful thriller. This is only the second book in the series. Every series grows over time. The writing skills are there so I will definitely buy more.