If there is one thing you need when you are devotedly reading a long-running series, it’s a likeable and eminently capable protagonist who has got more going on than simply existing as a prop for the narrative.
Someone like Tommi Grayson, the Scottish/New Zealander rogue werewolf who has proved many times over in her standalone books that form part of the Supernatural Sisters series by Aurealis Awards-winning author Maria Lewis, that she has the personality, the capability and the tenacity to sustain many a great and engaging story.
In the latest addition to her complicated, emotionally resonant and never less than compelling interesting, Who’s Still Afraid?, the follow-up to 2016’s Who’s Afraid? and 2017’s Who’s Afraid Too?, we find the Dundee, Scotland art curator (not there’s much of that going on these days) back in the thick of the political machinations beseting the supernatural world of which she, immortal Pict and close friend Heath and a slew of fascinating other characters are a part.
As ever, Tommi is unafraid to take on any task at hand, whether it’s cleaning out nests of ghouls beneath the unsuspecting streets of Berlin, undergoing a coming of age ritual which may or not may kill her (oh goody!) and facing up to the fact that the Treize, the millennia-old governing body of supernatural beings worldwide may not just be an authoritarian relic but close to teetering and falling too.
That’s a lot going on in just one book but Lewis handles it all flawlessly, helped by the fact that she has crafted, in Tommi, the kind of endlessly readable, consummately capable lead character who is also vulnerable and very human into the mix.
“I recalled the time before I knew what I was, before I had experienced my first transformation. I had gone through life unable to smell the plethora of scents the world seemed to be emitting at all times, let alone trace them back to their source. I hadn’t been able to use my werewolf hearing, for example, to make sure everyone’s breathing was deep and steady in sleep as I snuck out of the hotel that morning. I guessed that if I were somehow able to go back to regular humanity – reverse the lycanthropic clock -it would feel like I was navigating life underwater, my senses muted to everything that was out there.” (P. 29)
And in a story that crosses the globe, supernatural and natural realms, that is full of action, intrigue, gore and violence, that matters a great deal.
Not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with any of the things in the preceding sentence, and indeed, in a gritty urban fantasy they are exactly what you want and expect, but all of those exciting narrative elements would ring more than a little hollow without a protagonist as richly-realised and complex as Tommi Grayson, who is as badass as they come but also intensely, winningly human.
That’s also important in the context of the Who’s Afraid trio of novels, because Tommi was not aware she was a werewolf until the events of Who’s Afraid? and even after all her training and supernatural life experience, she still struggles with the balance between her human self and the growling, strong wolf within.
It doesn’t detract from her ability to handle almost any situation, and part of the thrill of the Tommi Grayson is having a female protagonist who’s brilliantly and assuredly self-possessed, but it does grant her a humanity with which we very mortal non-supernatural beings can readily identify.
When you’re in a world where just about everything screams otherworldly and beyond the realm of human experience, it gives us an emotional in to the book which adds nuanced layers to an already well-told story.
Also a story with a lot going on.
In-between all the “shit-talking and killing”, Tommi (who it is intimated more than once is the key to everything good and future possible) has to deal with a possible reunion with the Ihi pack back in New Zealand – you think you have a dysfunctional family? You aren’t even close, trust us – a possible new romance, an ex who may be now on the wrong side in more ways than one, big and small threats from all kinds of creatures and people, and everyday life with her rogue werewolf pack based at the Phases nightclub in Berlin where the mundanity of the day-to-day rarely gets a chance to assert herself.
The genius of Who’s Still Afraid? is that it takes a multitude of moving parts and seamlessly slots them into the narrative in such a way that they all make perfect, highly-rewarding to read sense while giving the characters, chief among Tommi, a chance to simply be, to relate, to love, to cry and to do all the usual human things that matter, even to supernatural beings.
It’s this allowance for raw, unfiltered humanity that grounds Who’s Still Afraid? in the context of a world in which it is very much a part.
Good old garden variety humanity may be blissfully unaware of the earth demons, selkies, werewolves and vampires hiding just beyond their perception but they are still affected by them, and Lewis takes the time and care to link the two worlds together and to explore how they relate to each other, important for story setting purposes naturally but also because Tommi exists between these two realities, a fact which informs much of what makes her tick and how she reacts throughout the series, and of course, Who’s Still Afraid?
“‘I’m a werewolf, Heath. I know how strong the gene is. It gets passed down no matter what, from either the father or mother. It doesn’t matter if only one of your parents has it, the end result is the same. I’ve never been treated like ‘half’ a werewolf and I haven’t seen anyone else treated that way either. But this … lycanthropy? It’s a curse. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. The power and the responsibilities are hyped up by a lot of people, but there’s the pain. Fuck, such pain. And all the baggage that comes with it, like what Aruhe and I are about to walk into right now. I couldn’t knowingly bring someone into this world when I understand everything they would have to face.'” (P. 279)
The happy mix of the natural and the supernatural, of humanity and super-humanity if you want to call it that, grants Who’s Still Afraid?, and indeed all of Lewis’s books with a sense of being part of the world we know and yet also wholly apart from it.
The back and forth between those worlds also means the books are also just a lot of fun to read, a heady coming together of buoyant action, political and societal intrigue with a riotous willingness to take the author’s superlative worldbuilding in all kinds of very cool ways.
Her postmodern willingness to bring a host of mythical creatures (or are they?) creatures together is hugely enjoyable from a fecund exercise of imagination point of view, giving you a chance to happily wallow in a world where just about anyone or anything is possible, but it also gives her stories endless possibilities, the kind that make Who’s Still Afraid? such a brilliantly good read.
Who’s Still Afraid? is a gem of an urban fantasy novel because it takes its inherent sense of fun and imaginative expansiveness and invests it with real world consequences, triumph, pain, love, wins and losses and a teetering sense that everything is hanging in the balance, and that there are great and grim battles ahead – the novel ends on a cliffhanger of sorts but resolution should be coming soon in The Rose Daughter releasing 6 April – but that even in the midst of the momentous struggles to come, there is love, a palpable sense of belonging and most importantly, an ever stronger sense of self that should Tommi can handle, and with aplomb, pretty much anything that lies ahead.