The Grendel Affair by Lisa Shearin (2013)
Have you seen The Librarians or Bones? The Grendel Affair feels a lot like those shows, but with supernatural elements. This is the first book in Shearin’s SPI Files series and it could easily be viewed as a kind of pilot episode for the series itself. We are introduced to the main characters that will make up the crime-solving team whose purpose is to protect humanity from the supernatural baddies stalking the underbelly of the world. Like you would expect, we don’t get to know to know too much about any one character, but by the end of the story, there’s the expectation that as this series unfolds, more will be revealed about each member of the team and the supporting cast. But as with any pilot episode—and more to the point, any first book in a series—the characters have to grab you, drag you into their world, and make you want to stay there with them. I’m not convinced that this particular Scooby gang succeeds.
Let’s start with the main protagonist. The story is told through the first-person point of view of Makenna “Mac” Fraser. Mac is relatively new to SPI (Supernatural Protections & Investigations) and the talent that makes her unique as well as placing a perpetual target on her back is her ability to see beneath the glamours, veils and disguises that supernaturals are able to draw over their features and make themselves appear to be human. This ability makes Mac a Seer, a rarity in the world Shearin is building and as such a highly valuable asset to the SPI team. Given that she’s still new to the team, though, Mac is still learning how to navigate the ins and outs of her new job, and though her talent isn’t new, putting it to use is. She’s not an uninitiated innocent that doesn’t know about the hidden world of the supernatural, but she is at a starting point in the series where she has a lot to learn and tons of room for character development and growth. The problem with Mac, at least in this first book, is that she’s not compelling enough. Yes, she has her struggles in terms of fitting into this new world of SPI, but other than the fact that she’s a Seer and the promise that this will likely put her life in danger again and again, there weren’t any glimpses or teases that there’s anything interesting lurking in her backstory. Mac is normal. Maybe too normal.
Which brings me to the supporting cast. Mac’s partner is Ian Byrne, formerly an NYPD detective. She’s not really sure if Ian really likes her or sees her as an equal member of the team, and worries that he thinks of her as someone to babysit. From early on in the novel, there’s a bit of mystery surrounding Ian, as Mac runs into someone she doesn’t know but who clearly knows her and asks her to send his regards to her partner, whom she identifies by name. Then near the middle of the book, Ian relates the event from his past that caused him to leave the NYPD and start working for SPI, adding another layer of interest to his character. Ian doesn’t have any supernatural talents, but he knows how to strategize and soldier. He’s a protector (and yes, maybe that’s why I’m so drawn in by him as a character) but he’s also clearly not a plain vanilla character. Another key member of the supporting cast is Vivienne Sagadraco, the founder of SPI and director of the New York office. Like her name is intended to suggest, Sagadraco is a dragon (cue references to the “dragon lady”) and as the plot develops, it becomes clear that she, too, has a compelling backstory that will come back to haunt her present and impact the team as a whole. It’s also clear that Sagadraco could become the mentor-type figure for Mac, supportive but authoritative, cautious but encouraging. Then there’s Sagadraco’s right-hand man, Alain Moreau, a vampire who is also the lead counsel for SPI (cue references to the “blood-sucking” lawyer). He doesn’t have a big role in the story, but when he does appear it’s with the sense that at some point in this series, he will be featured more prominently and that Moreau is definitely much much more than he seems. Rounding out the cast are Yasha, a werewolf; Calvin, a human who agent who is good in battle; and Kenji, the computer/tech wizard. The problem that Ian and Sagadraco pose is that they are far more interesting than Mac, the perceived protagonist. I can imagine myself picking up the second book in this series just to see how the characters develop, but at the same time it’s not a book I’m going to rush to download or add to my to be read list.
Shearin has chosen New York City as the setting for her series, and no offense to the New Yorkers out there, but once again I find myself rolling my eyes and shaking my head at this choice. Though popular culture wants me to believe it, NYC really isn’t the only city in the world. At the same time, I do have to admit that the choice of New York City is a good one for this particular story. In order to “save the day” Mac and Ian must stop the antagonist of the story from revealing the existence of the supernatural community before the ball drops in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Aside from the setting, there isn’t a great deal of world-building in the first book in this series, but again, I’m willing to chalk that up to this being the equivalent of the pilot episode of a new series. The point here is that thus far, there’s nothing unique or new about the world Shearin presents, which means you’ll feel at home if you’re a frequent reader of urban fantasy but that there’s also the potential for being bored. For new readers of the genre, it is a good entry point that isn’t so complex that you’ll be put off or alienated.
Is The Grendel Affair a satisfying read? Yes, but I’m not sure I would take the next step and say that it was hard for me to put down or that I was fully engaged throughout the story. It was average, not by any means the worst of the category but not an exemplar, either. Considering that I’ve always got my eye on my book budget and want to make the most of my book dollars, I’m not inclined to read the next book in this series any time soon. If you’re looking for urban fantasy that is similar to what you’d find in the cozy mystery genre, this one might be for you; however, if like your urban fantasy to be populated by characters with haunting backstories and a world that is a bit more dangerous and threatening, then take a pass on this one.
Have you read The Grendel Affair or any other books by Lisa Shearin? What did you think?