Review: THE GRENDEL AFFAIR (the S.P.I. files #1), by Lisa Shearin
If the police are there to protect citizens from your run-of-the-mill bad guys, what happens when these bad guys are supernatural creatures? No need to invoke the famous Ghostbusters, because SPI exists precisely for this reason. Supernatural Protection and Investigations works to safeguard humans from scary creatures like vampires or ghouls or whatever, and to keep their existence as secret as possible. Makenna “Mac” Fraser has been enrolled by SPI for her rare gift: she is a Seer, someone who can see through any disguise or spell cast by supernaturals to cover their non-human appearance.
Unlike other Urban Fantasy heroines, Mac is not a brooding, ass-kicking lady or someone with a dark, terrible past she’s trying to forget: she’s a rather ordinary person, holding a job as a tabloid reporter investigating the kind of fake monster sightings that the trashy press most enjoys, only to be contacted by SPI because of her peculiar characteristic. She has the quite uncommon ability to see the real monsters under the human mask they wear. She is also quite unprepared for the dangers SPI agents have to face each day and is quite straightforward about it, studiously avoiding to rush in where angels (or better trained operatives) fear to tread. That was the first quality I appreciated in this character, the willingness to admit her own shortcomings and the reluctance to face unknown dangers, even though these are part of her job description: too often in this genre the spunky protagonist finds herself well in over her head and regularly needs saving, while Mac knows her limits and also knows when to take a step back and let her more experienced co-workers take over, with no qualms or inferiority complex whatsoever.
And what interesting co-workers she has! Starting with her partner Ian, a former cop who at first does not look too happy to babysit a rookie, but who quickly changes attitude once he understands that Mac does not intend to be just excess baggage but wants to be trained – as much as her own limits allow – so she can be an effective operative the others can depend on. There are a few dark corners to Ian, some of which we uncover in the course of the story, and he comes across as a decent guy – again avoiding the cliché of the skilled agent looking down on the newbie and putting her through hell just for the sake of it. I also like the partnership and friendship vibes coming off Ian and Mac that might in future evolve into something deeper, but don’t seem in a hurry to do so – another overused trope happily avoided.
Then there are people like Yasha, the Russian werewolf, or Kenji, the computer-savvy Elf, or again Alain Moreau, SPI’s resident lawyer who’s also a vampire (there’s some not-so-understated subtext here, I’m certain…). But the most impressive of them all is Vivienne Sagadraco, the director who, as her name suggests is indeed a dragon. A dragon lady in every sense of the word, to be precise. This diverse and interesting cast animates a quickly developing and fast-paced story that mixes adventure and humor in a successful way, while continuing to raise the stakes until the very end: the kind of book that keeps you glued to its pages and at the same time makes you smile – and sometimes laugh out loud, mostly through Mac’s self-effacing jokes like this one:
There were entirely too many grave markers lurking just below the snow’s surface on that hillside, and my feet were doing a fine job of finding every last one of them. I’d made two face-down snow angels and one outright sprawl.
The story itself focuses on a complex plot to make the world aware of the truth about supernaturals in a most dramatic way, by unleashing the titular Grendels on an unsuspecting crowd on New Year’s Eve: from what we learn, the mythical creature vanquished by Beowulf does indeed exist and is even more dangerous (and prolific!) than its literary ancestor – the scenes concerning the hatching of the Grendel’s eggs make for some of the most terrifying and claustrophobic reading I can remember – and SPI finds its resources taxed to the maximum to contain and eliminate the threat. If you enjoy breathless monster hunts through abandoned subway tunnels or multi-layered plotlines that finally converge into an explosive climax, with the added bonus of a crew of battle-hungry Scandinavian agents who enjoy a good, gory fight just as much as their Viking forebears did, this is indeed the book for you.