Since the shocking 1978 mass suicide of Jim Jones’s followers in Jonestown, Guyana, cults have joined the lexicon of modern tragedies. With her background as a childhood member of the Children of God, Taylor Stevens has the authority of experience behind her well-crafted thriller. Her protagonist, Vanessa Michael Munroe, is a trained killer, a survivor with an exceptional skill set that makes her the best candidate to retrieve thirteen-year-old Hanna from the cult The Chosen, an international organization of true believers cloaked in secrecy and anonymity.
Kidnapped from her parents when she was five, Hannah has been sheltered by the cult from any attempts to rescue her. In desperation, Logan, Michael’s close friend forged of similar experience, appeals to Munroe to recover Hanna now that he has specific information about her most recent location in Buenos Aires. Joined by Heidi and Gideon, two others raised in childhood by The Chosen, the trio meets with Munroe in Morocco to persuade her to accept the assignment and serve as her team.
Munroe’s ties to Logan are deep and unbreakable. For this reason alone, she considers his request carefully, less certain about the motives of the others and what hazard they may add to the risky enterprise. But Michael is grappling with her own demons, nightmares born of the horrors of her own history, paying a high emotional price for the skills that have ensured her survival. This troubled protagonist imbues the novel with its authenticity, a chameleon/soldier on a mission who puts aside her own needs to deliver a child from the depravity visited upon the young females in The Chosen.
Critical to Michael’s success is Miles Bradford, ex-Special Forces and current independent contractor with excellent resources for spiriting away the child once she is extricated from her hiding place. Accurate information is critical, as is secrecy, a flaw in either the harbinger of failure and mortal danger, especially for Monroe. Chapter by chapter, the plan is refined. It requires infiltration and subterfuge, only to be thwarted by unexpected activities, causing a radical last-minute change. At times barely one step ahead of unfolding events, Michael strides into dangerous territory like an avenging angel, facing down stone killers and gun-toting mercenaries, all of it worth the price of a successful operation and the life of one child.
Filled with the building excitement of the mission in Buenos Aries, Stevens adds welcome emotional texture to the relationships of her characters, making each more sympathetic and relatable—particularly Michael, who otherwise might be perceived as some kind of freakish killing machine. Giving extraordinary combat skills to a female protagonist certainly speaks to empowerment, but Stevens balances this masculine energy with Michel’s internal conflicts, the hard decisions she has made in managing the choices of a survivor dedicated to helping others like herself.
The broader perspective, the culture of cult life and its pervasive influence across international borders, is yet another aspect of the novel: if such organizations are exposed, perhaps public interest will inspire investigation, though such enterprises are deeply rooted in a criminal network that defies the usual laws and boundaries, a flourishing underground society where innocence is exploited and venality rewarded under the guise of religion and politics. Child exploitation is big business, the powerful engaged in a vast network that insures the safety of their lucrative enterprise. Like a tiny, cancerous growth, the public’s penchant to embrace groupthink cloaked in security and salvation is a terrifying concept.