Few action-adventure protagonists are harder to pull off than the Everygal heroine — the average, relatable, usually-slightly-klutzy woman who somehow finds herself in the middle of scary or world-shattering events. You know the type. She’s just a normal girl who happens to stumble into an apocalypse every once in a while — and fortunately the hot supernatural guys who are lusting after her are there to bail her out. Everygal klutziness/incompetence usually has me grinding my teeth in exasperation and wishing Everygal would turn the book over to the much-more-interesting supporting cast. I don’t need all of my books to feature ass-kicking main characters, but if it’s an action-adventure novel I have to believe that the protagonist is someone who could and should be in dangerous situations.*
Which is why I love Mackenna Fraser, the main character in Lisa Shearin’s The Grendel Affair. Mac works for an organization called Supernatural Protection and Investigations, or SPI for short. SPI’s mission is keeping the existence of supernatural forces and monsters off the radar of the average citizen (think a less authoritarian version of the Men in Black). Most of Mac’s colleagues have backgrounds in law enforcement and can discharge a staggering variety of weapons.
Mac, on the other hand, is something of an Everygal. She was last employed as a tabloid journalist and doesn’t have much in the way of combat skills. However, she is a seer, someone with the rare ability to spot the supernatural even when it’s trying to hide. This makes her valuable to SPI, where she has just started working, but her lack of experience also gives her something of an inferiority complex around her partner-slash-babysitter Ian Byrne.
That setup–hyper-competent guy, slightly helpless gal–made me a bit uneasy, but Mac doesn’t go the usual Everygal route of continually landing herself in danger and/or tripping over things to show how relatable she is. Instead, over the course of The Grendel Affair we see Mac working to become better at her job. She doesn’t take dumb risks, she asks for and receives better training, and she also doesn’t allow herself to wallow when she feels outclassed by her co-workers. Mac knows she brings something valuable to the team and is ready and able to use the skills she does have.
The plot of The Grendel Affair centers on SPI’s efforts to find a dangerous supernatural monster that someone has unleashed on New York shortly before New Year’s Eve. The book reminded me of a particularly good monster-of-the-week episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”–there are a few surprising revelations and some good character development, but overall the focus is on watching the team hunt down and stop the bad guys. The plot moves along at a nice clip, Mac’s narrative voice is cheerful without being cloying, and while the supporting cast is sketched out fairly broadly in this first book, I liked Mac’s fellow SPI agents and enjoyed her interactions with them.
I also liked the relationship that develops between Mac and Ian, her much deadlier partner. At the beginning of the book it’s clear that Ian feels hamstrung by Mac’s lack of experience — but that’s completely understandable, and (this is crucial) he’s not a jerk about it. He always treats Mac with professionalism. In turn, Mac respects Ian’s skills and experience (instead of ignoring his advice and landing herself in dangerous situations, like a lot of other Everygal types). You can see Ian grow to like and trust Mac more over the course of the novel and their developing camaraderie feels real and earned.
If you’re looking for fun, light urban fantasy, this is your book.
Rating: Library Loan
* This is why I bailed on the Stephanie Plum series — I get that the concept of the series is “everygal turns into hilariously inept bounty hunter,” but I grew really frustrated with Stephanie’s refusal to put any effort into becoming competent. Either pick up some skills or find a job where people don’t shoot at you. Yeesh.