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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Vincent Kale's Review of "Monarch" by Michelle Davidson Argyle

As I mentioned at the end of last week, I had the wonderful opportunity to read an advance copy of Michelle Davidson Argyle's spy-thriller novel, "Monarch." I'll jump right into the review after another look at the back-cover blurb:

Nick’s life as a CIA spy should be fulfilling, but it has only given him unhappiness—a wife who committed suicide, and two daughters who resent everything he has become. Now, stuck in the Amazon on the last mission of his career, he must track down Matheus Ferreira, a drug lord and terrorist the U.S. has tried to bring down for years. If he succeeds, he’ll have the chance to start his life over again.

Just when Nick is on the brink of catching Ferreira, he’s framed for a murder that turns his world upside down. His only chance of survival lies in West Virginia where Lilian Love, a woman from his past, owns the secluded Monarch Inn. He’s safe, but not for long…

*Disclaimer: Please forgive any part of my review that is incoherent, misspelled or generally nonsensical. I'm battling a fever and the bottle of NyQuil is calling my name...

Argyle's "Monarch" is, at first blush, a mash-up of the romance and thriller genres with a dash of espionage thrown in. While my characterization of the novel may come across as dismissive, the blending of the two styles actually works quite well. Argyle starts "Monarch" off with a literal bang (or rather a muffled 'pop' from a silenced gun) during a failed assassination attempt. Here we are introduced to one of three principal characters: CIA officer, Nick Avery.

Nick has troubles with the ladies, to say the least. His previous wife committed suicide, his daughters are distant both emotionally and geographically, and the one person who can help clear his name is the wife of a drug lord hidden somewhere in Brazil. Only slightly more important than saving face and staying alive is finding the woman who might just redeem his soul. And here we come to Lilian Love.

Lilian runs the rustic Monarch Inn in the secluded woodland of West Virginia. With the help of her twenty-six year old son Devan, she plays host to honeymooners, travelers and scientists all looking to get a glimpse of the Monarch butterflies during their migration. In Lilian and Devan, Argyle introduces us to the other two principle points of view. She allows each character to develop their own personality throughout their respective chapters and it's done in a way that never becomes boring or predictable.

Nick is clearly the driver of the action in this story and there's plenty of it. While he seems to mess up more than he gets right, luck stays on his side for the most part. The fight scenes are well crafted and entertaining without being over-the-top. The comparison of survival in the harsh Brazilian jungle to the relaxing atmosphere of the West Virginia woods is nicely done (although events cause those two settings to crash together in a very satisfying climax!) Nick, while borderline incompetent with his trust at times, means well and comes off as a good-hearted fatherly type who deserves to win out at the end of the day.

Devan, whom I related to the most (probably because I'm a late-twenties male who's been in love triangles/affairs/what have you...) is a late-twenties male who gets caught up in a love triangle (fancy that!) when Nick drops off his similarly-aged daughters, Clara and Violet, at the Inn for safe keeping. It was great to read through Devan's reactions as he tried to figure out just what to do with these women and just what to do with his own life.

The one issue I did have with Devan's character came early on when Nick first shows up at the Inn. Devan knows Nick and his mother, Lilian, have a bit of a past. He also knows that his mother is still crushed over the divorce from Devan's father. When Nick shows up on the scene with his slick words and overly helpful attitude, Devan seems to take it in stride like it is no big deal. As the only son of a divorced mother, that is NOT the way I would have reacted. The Inn is Devan's territory and Lilian is his to protect. Even if he eventually had no say in the matter, Devan made things a bit to easy on Nick and thus missed out on, not only a realistic portrayal, but also a building of conflict that could have resolved later on.

On to Lilian. Though she is arguably the most important character in the novel, I found myself liking her the least. Now hold on, let me explain! Throughout the story, I found her to be too pliable, a doormat, a wandering spirit with no purpose or direction. To me, she wallowed too much in her past relationships and reflected too often on their failures. For a time, all of the relationships in "Monarch" were about as shallow as those in a paranormal, young adult novel you'd buy off the supermarket shelf. But about halfway through, they pick up, add depth and develop into something that's got a bit of a nasty bite to it as well as hope for a silver lining. Like any romance worth is words, Argyle layers the paths connecting her characters so that it actually means something when one of them is hurt, or even killed; all the more so when they end up happy.

Back to Lilian. I mentioned how much I didn't like her early on. I kept waiting for her to wake up, to snap out of it, to stand up for herself. I'm happy to say that Argyle did not disappoint. There's a dark little scene towards the end that forces Lilian to take control, if only for a moment; it was enough to put me back on her side.

And then it hit me...the Monarchs, these fragile little creatures that have been a major theme throughout the story. They're at the mercy of countless events that are beyond their control. They lack the strength to resist a strong wind or to fly through heavy rains, yet still they persist. They weather storms and droughts and declines in their population. They go through a physical metamorphosis that changes them from inside-out, wholly, completely.

Once that revelation hit me while reading the last few pages of "Monarch," it made me appreciate all of the characters that much more. Each of them evolved in their own way and none of them were simple or one-dimensional. Even the villains had some gray areas to them, making them more human and less cartoonish. It's a revelation that warrants another read of "Monarch" to fully appreciate the journey. I hope that, whether you're a fan of romance or spy-thrillers or just fantastic writing in general, you'll give Michelle Davidson Argyle's "Monarch" a try!

Click here for a list of places to buy "Monarch!"


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