Debut novel compelling 'thinking person's thriller'

Bruce Munro reviews Eye of the Songbird by Michael Munro. Published by Tita Publishing.

From the dramatic opening chapter, set down a crevasse on Taylor Glacier in the Transantarctic Mountains, Eye of the Songbird confidently grabs the reader's attention, demanding to be heard and enjoyed.

This international thriller by first-time author Michael Munro, of Wellington, punches way above its weight.

It is a compelling tale of the clash between environmental activism and nation-state power, personified by the two lead characters Sadie Rosenberg and Kirk Barnby - one a potential eco-terrorist and the other a secret-service agent. Is she justified to use diamonds found in the Antarctic to finance her subversive campaign against political corruption and environmental degradation? Is his mission to infiltrate her organisation, and possibly kill her, justified in the name of shoring up the nation-state and protecting Western, democratic values?

Munro writes with an assured voice that is astounding, given this is his first foray into fiction. His descriptions of racing against an incoming Antarctic storm, being attacked in a Wellington house or enjoying an evening aboard a super-yacht off the coast of Turkey are brought alive for the reader without being over-written. Surely, Munro's life as a globe-trotting jazz musician for hire has helped him bring these settings to life. But unless he's also been kidnapped, smuggled gems, served with the military and led a clandestine cell, his skill of research, imagination and writing are clear.

Eye of the Songbird's two main characters are fully formed, complex individuals, living and breathing their way through the novel's 484 pages. They wrestle with who they are and change, which is a pleasure to see (despite the changes feeling like they come a little too easy at times).

There are plenty of other characters too, each uniquely configured and motivated: some clashing spectacularly, some respectful enemies, some eventually falling into each others' arms. Perhaps there are too many happy romantic endings.

That Eye of the Songbird is self-published is extremely surprising. Both because of the quality of the layout and printing, and to think that an established publisher did not snap up the manuscript. The occasional rare spelling mistake or grammatical error will only make it a collector's item when acclaim surely comes.

This is an action novel, but it is packed with interesting and important themes and questions. Extensive dialogue is used to tease out issues, but not in a way that slows the pace of the story. It is clear that the author thinks and cares deeply about the environmental, economic, political and social conundrums facing our times. But he manages to do that in an engaging manner, without being preachy.

Munro could well become New Zealand's John Le Carre.

Eye of the Songbird is every thinking person's thriller. It is a novel that deserves a wide and appreciative audience.

Bruce Munro is an ODT features writer. He is not related to the author.


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