Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Free Agent (Grimm Agency #1) by J.C. Nelson

Marissa works for Grimm who runs the Agency. He’s a fairy and he grants wishes – your happily ever after can be yours!

For a price – a price paid in hard earned Glitter, the essence of magic. It’s the high cost of glitter and the desperate need for a wish that led Marissa’s parents to sell her to Grimm in the first place. Now she works saving kids from wolves, ensuring princesses and princes fall in love (dumping the princes and letting the princess pick up the pieces is surprisingly effective) and generally counting the glitter until she earns her freedom.

But her latest routine job, matchmaking a prince and princess, goes terribly wrong – and it just escalates from there. A prince has gone missing, the fae are set to invade the Kingdom and Marissa has caught the attention of a fae queen and the big bad from every fairy tale ever. And there’s a new fairy godmother in town, maliciously granting Marissa’s heart’s desire and Grimm doesn’t appreciate people muscling in on his turf.

In the past I have seen books with gritty fairy tales and, I have to say, they haven’t really worked. The silly tone and the dark tone together just haven’t really worked, it’s been a strain and it’s been a stretch and the conflicting elements didn’t work well together

This one worked

It worked because it didn’t try to push an idea of the silly, lightness that fairy tale depictions often try for. This may be silly at times, but it’s not light and it keeps the grim going. This has a woman running off with Glass Slippers that try to possess her. This is a world where Red Riding Hood is so named because she dipped her cloak in the blood of the wolves she slaughtered. This is a world where mirror-living fairy godparents are vastly powerful beings that hand out magical wishes at exorbitant fees (paid for in the ever precious “Glitter”) and that includes parents selling children into indentured servitude to pay for desperate wishes.

This is a world where the high magic and wonder of fairy tales is included but without any jarring elements. The Disney is pushed back, the contrasts used for jarring contrast and amusement more than jolly little giggles. The whole theme and tone works, it really works with none of the ill-fitting elements I’m used to. When there’s comic relief it’s more because of things added like the Gnomish postal service hating Marissa because she ran one of them over. It doesn’t rely on fairy tales made dark to make us laugh. It has fairy tales and it has humour but it isn’t FLUFFY

The world always keeps that magical fairy tale touch and the re-imagining really works; we have royal houses with Princes and Princesses with all the fairy tale elements in the Kingdom – which is a wonderful mash up of castles, swords and sorcery and skyscrapers and CEOs. It has some delightful moments like a princess converting a hellhound (because princesses and animals!) and some deep edgy moments like the origin of witches.

Which brings us to our protagonist, Marissa – and excellent mix of hope, cynicism, youth, experience, confidence and doubt. She’s the indentured servant to Grimm, a fairy (and therefore ultimate power) because her parents sold her. She has a lot of desperate hope for the future and because of that she isn’t really living her life – but nor does she have any solid plans for her future either beyond some nebulous hope. She matures a lot over the process of the book, realising she’s not as good as she thinks she is in some cases while also discovering new confidence in other. She also takes direction in her life – as an indentured servant, an effective slave, she’s had very little in the way of choice about which way her life goes or what she does and she finds her agency, her choices and her power over the course of this book. And all of that while being the mundane person in a sea of people with woo-woo.

There’s also a solid cast of supporting characters. Grimm, the all powerful Fairy Godfather who has such a wonderfully complex relationship with Marissa. He’s paternal, benevolent, a mentor but she never forgets that he effectively owns her and doesn’t let him get too close – interestingly, as she becomes stronger and freer, their relationship is able to become closer. That relationship also works well in the shadows of Grimm’s other servants, the lives they’ve lead and the scars that mark them skewer the benevolence and make it clear that no matter how kind, she has been pulled into a dangerous life to say the least

I also like Ari. It would have been so easy to make Ari a princess who Marissa would hate because she’s so princess and perfect. But she wasn’t, even if she started that way, she developed her own skills and strengths and abilities and was more than worthy of respect by the end of the book. I thought she’d be an extra maybe even a disposable one or comic relief – but she was a completely viable and powerful character by the end with her own role and power in the plot. This was surprising because she started so badly, she was looked down on for her appearance (not reaching the princess ideal) and for her perceived inability (definitely through Marissa’s judgemental gaze) but over the course of the book she proved herself time and again.

I’m also impressed that Liam, while always a powerful love interest for Marissa, never really consumed the plot. Even when he learns the truth, he isn’t quick to forgive Marissa or forget what she’d done in the name of setting him up with a princess. I like that their romance becomes a difficult task of rebuilding respect and doesn’t happen quickly – and nor does it consume the plot to deliver it.

The story itself has just the right combination of personal drama and growth for Marissa (as the several plots come together and her relationships with Ari and Liam develop), a nicely twisty, involved main plot (with several threads that are related and touch each other excellently) which is well paced and, barring a few hesitations, moves forward and at great pace. We have a series of inter-related antagonists and a big bad who is so utterly, perfectly unique that I love it. All of this backed by some truly perfect world building – the world is revealed in so many wonderful little asides without vast, dialogue murdering and story stopping info-dumps – but so much is revealed still. It’s artfully done. If I have any criticism it’s that the cast is so huge and the pacing so fast that you have to be paying careful attention not to get lost or miss something important.

Another issue is the depiction of minorities people – there are hardly any. And I already mentioned the cast is huge so that’s a pretty massive erasure here. We have Shigeru, a very minor bodyguard for one of the side characters who might as well wave a big sign with ASIAN ASIAN ASIAN written on it for his development or detail and Grimm’s receptionist is Latina (though that’s a guess from the fact she speaks Spanish as a first language as much as anything else). Evangeline (one of Grimm’s other servants) MIGHT be a POC but it’s a strong example of the ambiguous description or hinting – and given the treatment of Shigeru I’d be surprised at such a “subtle” approach. Given we have Marissa, her family, the three servants of Grimm, Ari, Liam, the prince Ari is meant to fall in love with, that prince’s family, a passle of fae, a pack of wolves, a witch, Ari’s stepmother – well there’s a lot of characters here.

That’s an unfortunate major problem in a book I otherwise really loved. It does start confusingly and the pacing is breakneck and complex but it is more than worth working through it and paying attention. I picked up this book by mistake (I actually picked up the second book by mistake) and was regretting it. Now I think I was very very lucky