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Friday, January 17, 2014


Author:  Lisa Shearin
Series:  SPI FILES 
Plot Type:  Light Urban Fantasy (UF) 
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor3 
Publisher and Titles:  Ace
          "Lucky Charms" in Night Shift anthology (11/2014)  
          The Grendel Affair (1/2014)
          The Dragon Conspiracy (2/2015)
          The Brimstone Deception (1/2016)
          The Ghoul Vendetta (1/2017)

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 3/29/17 to include a review of The Ghoul Vendetta, the fourth novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the series world-building and a review of the first three novels. 

                    NOVEL 4:  The Ghoul Vendetta                      
      The agents of Supernatural Protection & Investigations (SPI) are paid to keep the peace. But that’s not so easy when an endless evil threatens to tear that peace to pieces.

     A vampire gangster’s nephew is abducted off his yacht by a bunch of low-rent Creatures from the Black Lagoon. A slew of banks are knocked over by what looks like the cast of Night of the Living Dead. All of this may seem like the movies, but, I promise you, it’s not.

     I’m Makenna Fraser, seer for SPI, and I know the culprits aren’t wearing disguises or makeup. They’re real. Deadly real. Especially their leader—an ancient shapeshifter who leaves a trail of chaos and blood in his wake. Now, he’s taken my partner, Ian—and his intentions aren’t pretty. The worst part? This is only the beginning. The beginning of the end of the human race.

     The publisher's blurb succinctly summarizes the plot, so I won't add any more details. Basically, this novel plays out just like the previous three: SPI is presented with a pair of huge supernatural problems, and the team gets to work. While the SPI agents show off their fighting skills, Mac stumbles and shrieks through all of the physically demanding parts of the action and thenshockinglymanages to analyze clues and and offer credible theories that outshine those of her experienced coworkers and superiors. The problem is, though, that Mac's theories (which are always correct) are based on nothing but her own untrained, inexperienced intuition. To me, Mac's ability to consistently come up with incredibly accurate theories seems far-fetched and utterly unconvincing.

     This novel is marginally better than the first three, mostly because Mac doesn't spend so much time throwing up or wheezing or falling over her own feet. She doesn't even get injured during this adventure even though she's always in the thick of the action.

     The plot moves along at a steady, speedy pacecompelling enough that I kept reading once I got into the story (unlike previous books, which were all too easy to put down and ignore for a day or two). For that reason, I'd have to say that this is the strongest novel in the series so far. 

     Two romances take place on the edges of the story: Mac and Rake indulge in a few passionate kisses, and he says the "L" word (but she doesn't). There's no bedroom action yet, but things are definitely heating up between Mac and her goblin. The second romance is between Ian and Kylie (a dryad), who also share a kiss or two (always far away in the background).

     Mac still comes across as an immature airhead, which is why it is so startling when she comes up with intelligent points in discussions about the ongoing plot conflicts. But then, just when you think that she has matured, she does something incredibly silly. For example, every time Rake offers her a drink, she asks for a Coke or a ginger ale and then gets the hiccups. This is cute for a toddler; it is ridiculous for a grown woman.

     Given the slight improvement in this novel, I'll probably read and review the next one, hoping that Mac attains more maturity (and some battle skills). Click HERE to to go to the novel's page where you can read an excerpt by clicking on the cover art.

      The series is set in New York City in a world in which many, many types of supernatural beings live alongside the human population while keeping their true appearances and magical natures secret. Policing the supernatural population is an organization called Supernatural Protection & Investigations, known to the supernatural world as SPI. 

     SPI is a huge organization with access to state-of-the-art weaponry and technology and a staff that includes everyone from highly trained warriors to computer wizards. As the series heroine explains, "SPI's mission is twofold: keep the world safe for supernaturals and humans alike, and cover up the truth. Because when it comes to supernaturals, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson: people can't handle the truth. SPI has offices worldwide, and their agents are recruited from various alphabet agencies, top police forces, and military special ops, and are supported by the sharpest scientific and academic minds." (p. 5)

     SPI is at the heart of the series, and unfortunately, it is one of its weaknesses, mostly because we are supposed to believe that this large militant group operates in complete secret. No one in the human world knows of SPI's existence, not even the government or the U.S. military. Also, they appear to be funded solely by a dragon's hoardthat dragon being Vivienne Sagadraco, the founder and CEO of SPI. Now, we all know that dragons love sparkly, shiny objects and that dragons' hoards are supremely valuable, but I had a hard time believing that this huge, global organization could run for very long on "sparkly" and "shiny" and that it could be kept so completely secret from the entire human world. 

     The series heroine is Makenna (Mac) Fraser, a 20-something woman from small-town North Carolina who happens to be a seera human who can see through the glamours of any supernatural being. As she explains, "We could see through any veil, ward, shield, or spell any supernatural could come up with as a disguise. Some used magic; most didn't. Veils were a survival mechanism, much like how a chameleon changed its colors to blend in with its surroundings to protect itself from predators." (p. 3) In the supernatural world, seers are extremely rare. There are only five in the entire SPI organization, and Mac is the only one in New York. 

     As the series opens, Mac has recently left her hometown and moved to Manhattan to become a journalist. When Mac's seer abilities come to Vivienne Sagadraco's attention, she offers Mac a job. Mac's primary duty as an SPI agent "is to point out the supernatural bad guys, then step aside so the…commando-ninja-badass monster fighters can take them into custodyor if necessary, take them out." (p. 5) Mac's hot and sexy human partner is Ian Byrne, a former NYPD detective, and the first book promises that there will eventually be more than a workplace partnership between them. 

                    PREQUEL NOVELLA:  "Lucky Charms"                    
     Click HERE to read my review of "Lucky Charms," one of the four novellas included in the Night Shift anthology (11/2014). 

                    NOVEL 1:  The Grendel Affair                    
     As the series opens, Mac hasn't been on the job very long when she goes off late one night to do a favor for Ollie, one of her snitches—a man who owns a weird shop that trades in the types of things that most humans would never consider buying or selling: "squishy things preserved in jars, dried things not in jars, funeral portraits, voodoo paraphernalia, and a sarcophagus…with an actual…mummy inside." (p. 9) While on her way to Ollie's shop, she is accosted by a vampire who calls her by name and seems to know her. After she escapes from the vamp, Ian turns up, determined to keep her from hurting herself on a solo mission. While Mac and Ian are in Ollie's shop, a monster breaks into an office upstairs and murders (actually, butchers) an intruder, and—just like that—our story is underway.
An illustration 
of Grendel
by J. R. Skelton from
Stories of Beowulf

     After a few more murders take place, Mac summarizes SPI's problem: "There'd been three murders in two days, and two of those killings had been committed by a ten-foot-tall monster with five-inch claws who'd come to town not as a tourist, but to eat the tourists, and anyone else who looked tasty." (p. 113) The title tells you what the monster is: a grendel, a descendant of the Grendel from the famous Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf. (That story has been made into several movies.) The story begins like a police procedural as the SPI agents collect clues and follow leads, but it soon develops into a monster-chase adventure as the agents discover that a powerful and dangerous adversary plans to turn a horde of grendels loose on Times Square at midnight on New Year's Eve, which is less than 48 hours away. The villain behind the scheme is determined to use the grendels as a bloody announcement to the human world that supernaturals exist and that humans are their prey.

     Although the story is well written (in the first person from Mac's point of view) and the characters are fairly well developed, the heroine is a weak element in the general scheme of things. Mac sees herself—and is seen by her colleagues—as fragile, unskilled, and kind of clumsy. They all agree that she is smart and that her seer powers are great, but beyond that, everyone seems to view her as a liability—a weak female who has to be protected because she has absolutely no defensive skills and not much common sense. At first, SPI won't even allow her to carry a gun; instead she carries a water pistol filled with vodka. As Mac's adventures get more and more dangerous, she gets slashed, bitten, tossed against walls, dropped from a catwalk, etc., etc.—always being saved by one or another of the male SPI agents, generally her partner, Ian. When she does manage to deflect an enemy, it's usually accidental. I'm hoping that in future books, Mac will become more confident and self-reliant and that she will finally get the training that SPI has been promising to give her. 

     Mac and Ian share a quick kiss near the end of the book, but I'm sure that their relationship will develop further in future books. So far, Ian has no rivals for Mac's attentions, but I'm guessing that will probably change—just to give the romance some spice and some angst. Click HERE to read an excerpt (first four chapters) from The Grendel Affair.

                    NOVEL 2:  The Dragon Conspiracy                    
      As the story opens (about a year after the end of book 1), SPI is guarding a museum exhibit of priceless treasures from the collection of the villainous Russian dragon, Viktor Kain. Kain has broken all the rules of dragon etiquette by showing up unannounced in Vivienne Sagadraco's territory. The rarest objects in his collection are seven huge egg-shaped, brightly colored diamonds that once belonged to the Russian imperial family just before they were executed by pro-Bolshevik forces back in 1918. Two of the eggs were stolen from supernatural clans (the elves and the goblins) and have magical powers. The remaining eggs are from the human realm, and though they do not have any powers of their own, they augment the power of the two magical diamonds. 

     On the opening night of the exhibition, the eggs are stolen by a trio of vicious harpies, who kill two guards and fly away with their treasure through a broken window. Just as the harpies are making off with the jewels, a young man named Ben Sadler—one of the guests—tries to stop them, creating a huge blast of light and power when he touches one of the egg-holding harpies. When the harpies attempt to kidnap Ben, SPI agents take him under their protection and learn that he is a high-level gem mage who is completely unaware of his magical powers.

     The rest of the story plays out within the same "ticking clock" trope used in book 1. SPI must find the harpies and the diamond eggs before midnight the next day (which is Halloween), or horrific things will happen to all of the supernaturals in the Tri-State area. Within hours, a gorgon threat is added to the mix, just to keep things interesting. (The author deviates from the all-female traditional gorgon mythology by including some male gorgons.) 

     I was disappointed to find the same basic story structure that the author used in the first book in the series. Obviously, this will be a formulaic genre series, but still, there are other tropes out there that would have been less repetitious. Once again, Makenna (Mac) Fraser, the heroine, is the weakest element in the story. Don't be fooled by the gun-toting tough girl on the front cover; Mac carries a gun only once in this book and never uses it. For the life of me, I can't understand why SPI sends her out on field assignments because she is always absolutely useless. In fact, she makes her team much less effective because she can't defend herself at all and relies on them to rescue her. Mac is always squealing in terror, whimpering in fear, yelping in surprise, or grabbing for Dramamine because she suffers from motion sickness on every single car, boat, or air trip she takes. SPI would be better off just putting body cameras on their field agents and letting Mac analyze the camera feed while sitting safely at her desk. Really, her only skills are that she can "see" beyond most supernatural glamours and that she can communicate telepathically with dragons—a new skill that surfaced late in the previous book and is amped up in this one as a deus ex machina plot device that leads to a positive resolution of the conflict. On the whole, Mac causes more problems than she prevents. 

     Mac's romantic situation has altered slightly. She claims that she has decided that she and her partner, Ian Byrne, will just be friends, so the most likely candidate for her affections is Rake Danescu, the sexy but dangerous, goblin who has been pursuing her since her first day with SPI. Nothing much happens between them in this book, but I expect a closer relationship will develop in the next one. 

     This series has, so far, brought nothing new to the world of urban fantasy—no original plot lines or creatures and no memorable characters. This is a slow-paced paranormal series with thinly developed characters and run-of-the-mill plots. Click HERE to go to a page on Shearin's web site where you can read the first three chapters.

     One last note: I hate to be a nitpicker, but here is a note to the copy proofer: On page 12, Mac uses the phrase "live to resperate another day." Resperate is the brand name of a medical device. This isn't a simple homonym error—changing the second "e" to an "i" won't work because respirate means to help someone breathe using artificial respiration. The author obviously means respire, or—even better—breathe

                    NOVEL 3:  The Brimstone Deception                      

     The agents of Supernatural Protection & Investigations (SPI) know that fighting evil is a full-time job, especially when a new designer drug—with mind-blowing side effects—hits the streets. 

    It’s called Brimstone. And after the first few hits, you’ll see every supernatural beast sharing the sidewalk, train, or office with you. After that, you’ll start seeing the really scary stuff. 

     I’m Makenna Fraser, seer for the SPI. And the collateral damage caused by Brimstone is something I’d like to unsee: dead drug dealers missing their hearts—and souls. Because your local pusher doesn’t stand a chance against the new cartel muscling its way into New York. And since the drug can only be produced with magic and molten brimstone fresh from Hell, that means a rift to the underworld is open somewhere in the city. And when—not if—the cartel loses control of it, well… 

     In this by-the-numbers story, Makenna (Mac) and her SPI colleagues team up with Rake Danescu, the sexy but dangerous, goblin who has been in romantic pursuit of Mac since the beginning of book 1. The story begins just a few days after the climactic battle that ended book 2. Recently, a new street drug called Brimstone hit the streets of New York, and the SPI agents must figure out who is making it, how it is being made, and why so many gruesome dead bodies are turning up on a daily basis—all with their hearts and souls ripped out and all with the imprint of a cloven hoof burned into their chests.

     Early in the action, Mac discovers that—all of a sudden—she can see portals, a skill that is extremely rare in the supernatural world and one that she has never had before. The reader is not surprised then when SPI discovers that portals play a major role in the Brimstone mystery. I hate it when authors manufacture new supernatural skills for a character solely to drive the plot. Eventually, the agents realize that they are in the midst of a major gang war between the elves and the goblins and that one of the powerful sorcerers they encountered in the battle that ended book 2 may also be at the heart of the Brimstone crimes.

     As the story plods alongwith too many long discussion scenes involving the SPI agentsit's always easy to figure out what's going to happen next in this completely predictable plot. As I tried to finish reading the book, I kept coming up with excuses to put it down because it has no dramatic tension whatsoevernothing that pulled me into the story. Consequently, it took me three days to force my way through this slim book (only 293 pages). Really, the simple plot line and the lack of character development should have made this a novella, but Shearin pads the book with lots of boring repetitionregularly stopping to summarize events and constantly repeating descriptions of character traits. Shearin also uses that old, stale trope of having a character stop in the middle of the violent climax to summarize the high points of the plot just in case the reader has not been paying attention. Not to mention Mac's droning on and on about her nausea and her asthma and her feelings about Rake, which remain pretty much the same as they have in the previous two books. Except for Rake, Mac and all of the other paper-thin characters are exactly the same in book 3 as they were in book 1 (except for Mac's new and unexplained portal skills). Although we learn that Mac's partner, Ian, has begun dating Kylie (SPI's public relations director), Shearin puts them together only in one brief scene that has nothing to do with their personal relationshipso no real character development there. Actually, Rake is the most interesting person/goblin in the book (and the series) because his character is the only one that has been fleshed out and allowed to expand and ripen over the span of the three books.

     Obviously, this book was a disappointment, and I'm not sure if I will continue to read this series. If I decide to forgo the next book, I'll still add the title to the list at the top of this ongoing post along with the publisher's blurb. Click HERE to to go to a page on Shearin's web site where you can read the first three chapters of The Brimstone Deception.

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