I am a big fan of Lisa Shearin’s Raine Benares series. I was stoked to hear she had a new series, this time urban fantasy set in our world, coming out. That was … three years ago. This is book one. What happened?
Life happened. The Grendel Affair came out during my last year teaching in England. No problem, I figured—I’ll buy it when I move back in August. Then August came around, and I didn’t. I was struggling to get through the backlog of books that had somehow shown up in my room in Canada while I was away. I’m still struggling to do that. (They’re breeding, I think. Only explanation.) But when book three came out last week, I decided enough was enough. So I ordered all three books online, delivered right to my door.
That’s right: I’m binge-reading this series the way others binge on Netflix.
The Grendel Affair starts the series with high stakes already: something or someone is planning to let some grendels loose on Times Square on New Year’s, effectively exposing the supernatural world. Oh no! If only there were a secret organization of supernaturals and human, perhaps a Supernatural Protection & Investigation(s) outfit. Nah … only a centuries-old dragon would be able to mastermind something like that.
The use of grendels as monsters feels pretty original. I can’t say I’ve run across those in urban fantasy yet. And Shearin spends a good amount of time establishing them as interesting monsters in their own right. They are mostly beast-like, but they’ve got a sense of strategy to them. The grendels and their offspring are formidable foes, but at the same time they aren’t so powerful that defeating them feels like a deus ex machina.
Otherwise, The SPI Files is pretty standard fare: werewolves and vampires, goblins and elves (hmm, don’t those sound familiar), ex-NYPD officers and seers and—oh, what? Yeah, our narrator, Makenna Fraser, is a human whose only powers include a nose for investigative journalism and the ability to see through the veils and glamours that let supernaturals hide in plain sight. Despite this ability, she is still technically a human. I appreciate that Shearin chooses to give us a protagonist with so few powers (at least for now).
Nevertheless, Mac might be the weakest thing about this book. Her lack of active power means she feels a bit like a reader surrogate protagonist-on-rails—always being dragged around by the other characters, reacting more than acting. Let’s be clear: not every urban fantasy protagonist has to be an awesome fighter, and a woman doesn’t have to be able to kick ass to be “strong” or progressive. But I want to see Mac do more than cringe and gripe at the various supernatural creatures around her. The tractor and the paintball gun were a nice start, but I hope she grows over the series into a more complex protagonist.
That’s the key, I think: over the series. This is clearly the first book in an ongoing series, and Shearin does a lot of legwork. In some respects it’s less subtle than I like—the opening chapter just showers us in exposition and backstory—and in other places it’s more delightfully ambiguous. For instance, Mac is pretty clearly attracted to Ian, but will she act on it? Who knows? Shearin had an intense love triangle happening in her other series, so I wouldn’t be surprised if a romance is on the books for these books—but maybe it’s not the one that’s being telegraphed so heavily here.
Now, despite laying ground for subsequent novels, The Grendel Affair is still a good standalone story. There is a sense of urgency to the plot, and it climaxes with a tense series of scenes and battle sequences that leave you breathless. I read this on a Saturday night (because I have especially exciting Saturday nights), curled up in a chair, just enjoying an action-packed story.
With six novels already, Shearin has a well-established style, and it’s in play here. Her voice and approach to description and characterization remain the same. That being said, The SPI Files is definitely new ground, and Mac is by no means a carbon copy of Raine. I can’t wait to read the next book—and unlike you scrubs who had to wait a whole year, I don’t have to. Is this what the people just starting to read A Song of Ice and Fire feel like? Because it feels good.