Book Review: The Grim Assistant by Jodi Hutchins
The Grim Assistant by Jodi Hutchins takes a unique spin on paranormal urban fantasy with a delightful cast of LGBTQ+ characters. This book takes what you think you know about the otherworldly paranormal creatures and makes you look at them in new ways, all while making you smile and tear up alongside the protagonists:
Postal carrier and amateur surfer, Samantha Diaz, lives an uncomplicated life. Well, other than helping her sister with childcare, crushing on her unavailable customer, Lauren Brennan, and catching as many waves as possible before hurricane season begins. Suffice to say, she isn’t looking for much more, but when Lauren invites her to a monthly game night at her house, Sam happily agrees.
When Sam sets out on an early morning, surf, the last thing she expects to do is die, but a sudden thunderstorm thrashes offshore, creating a riptide that steals Sam’s life. She awakens to a snarky woman named Margo speaking cryptic nonsense. Not only does she claim to be one of the many Grim Reapers, or Grims, in the world, Margo makes Sam an offer: she’ll bring Sam back from the dead, as long as she becomes Margo’s temporary assistant. Sam accepts but soon realizes the deal was too good to be true, and the consequences she faces may be worse than the death she dodged.
The Grim Assistant fondly reminded me of the books that I read in high school that pulled me into reading for enjoyment rather than begrudgingly reading for an English assignment. The book is fun, has a great cast of diverse characters, and has new takes on classic paranormal creatures (and it was refreshing to see the array of paranormal creatures include mentions of selkies and kelpies alongside the ever-popular shapeshifters, vampires, and fae).
When first reading the summary of the book, my hackles went up because the story’s entire premise revolves around Samantha Diaz’ death. I immediately worried that the book was perpetuating the “bury your gays trope,” but was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t exactly that. Yes – there is a queer character who does actually pass away which I’m still on the fence about (but won’t talk about in this review because it crosses into spoiler territory), but Sam’s death was a clever way to tackle the problematic trope. Hutchins took the trope and embraced it by granting Sam a peek into the world of spirits and other paranormal after being brought back to life by Margo, one of the Grim Reapers. Being brought back allows her to continue to care for her sister and nephew as well as find love with a woman she’s been silently pining after ever since Lauren moved to the touristy seaside town about two years prior.
Each character has unique dialogue and at no point was I confused about who was talking because their characterizations were so pronounced and consistent. At first, I was worried I’d get confused because quite a few names share the same first letter (i.e., Josh, John, Jackie; Bethany, Brent, Ben, Billy, Brian, and Brad), but most of those characters had few lines or were in the background with no dialogue. The main characters of the book, Sam and Lauren, and consistent secondary characters Jackie, Margo, and Bethany, all spoke in their own unique pattern that also conveyed distinct individual attitudes and personalities. It made picturing the characters easy, and by the end of the book, I was even fond of a Margo, who I had initially disliked.
Dialogue aside, the characters were also diverse, though vaguely so which I appreciate. Most of the features that Hutchins focuses on when describing characters in The Grim Assistant focus on hair length, hair color, hairstyle, and eye color. Occasionally they would include snippets about soft skin and freckles but rarely did Hutchins explicitly state skin color. The only time skin color is even mentioned that I remember is when Sam and her surfing buddy, Josh, are comparing their arm tans at the beginning of the book, stating that Sam had a more tanned complexion than Josh’s freckly one. Sam’s last name, Diaz, gives the impression that she of Hispanic heritage, Jackie’s dreadlocks made me think she was a black woman, and Margo’s full name is very Russian. But other than those small details, Hutchins doesn’t focus on the race of their characters, allowing the reader full ownership of their unique experience as they read.
Not only is the book racially diverse, but it’s super queer and varied in its queerness. There are multiple female characters who are into other women, one confirmed gay male relationship, another male relationship that I read as queer but wasn’t explicitly explained as such, and a character that I read as more aromantic/asexual and another that read gender-neutral to me, but again wasn’t explicitly identified as so. I’m hopeful in later books in the series the reader will get to meet trans characters and other genders on (or off of) the gender spectrum, but I was happy that this book contained multiple queer characters and queer relationships.
There were a few things that were a bit of a miss for me, though, despite how much I enjoyed the book, such as word choice, some pacing and tension issues, and scenes that seemed rushed into:
As a paranormal urban fantasy type book, the elevated word choice that was consistent throughout The Grim Assistant felt a little out of place. Not that that is a bad thing, but sentences like “A trill from a bicycle bell filled the air, coalescing with the call of a flock of seagulls harassing a group of teens munching on breakfast” (pg 1) in the same chapter with dialogue like “the fucking asshat” (pg 7) had a hard time meshing in my head as I read through the book. Though I enjoyed the narrative descriptions of The Grim Assistant, there were often times that it didn’t fit the tone of the scene or the description would focus too heavily on objects or sounds when it felt like it could have been better focused on the emotional state Sam or Lauren (the two perspectives of the book).
Having the narrative description overshadow some of those impactful emotional moments of turmoil with the main protagonists made the tension through the story inconsistent, which in turn made the pacing feel slightly off. I would describe the tension in the book as “a series of hills” – there were lots of small moments of tension that felt palpable, but nothing too extreme, nothing that built and built over time. There were through-lines through the book that should have added an undercurrent of tension, but I simply didn’t feel it as I read. The most tense moment for me personally as a reader was Sam’s death, but that happened within the first fifty pages of the two hundred and seventy-one page book. The tension built around Sam’s new line of work and how it affects her day to day life never really had me worried about her safety or well being (probably because she’d already technically died in the book, so it made me not believe that anything worse would happen to her). And the little tension built around Sam and Lauren’s relationship wasn’t believable because in the two perspectives you find early on that they’re both attracted to each other.
[MINOR SPOILER ALERT]
Scroll through to “Spoiler Free Zone” if you’d like to avoid spoilers.
The tension specifically surrounding Sam and Lauren’s relationship was something that I had a really hard time finding consistently through the book. Hutchins makes a point of articulating how hard it is for Lauren to fully trust someone and that it takes her time to even vocalize that she loves someone. She didn’t tell her girlfriend at the beginning of the book that she loved her until after they’d been together for over a year and three months and had been living together for three months at the time she confessed her feelings. Hutchins does a good job at the beginning of the book at showcasing that Lauren is guarded, and is guarded for good reason; but when it comes to Sam, that guard practically disappears on their second date.
Because Lauren’s guard goes down so quickly, the sex scenes that happen in the book felt very abrupt, and a little rushed into for me as a reader. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for consenting adults having sex when and wherever they please simply because they want to (and appreciate that Hutchins made a point of Sam and Lauren verbalizing their consent for sex to happen), but after reading about how guarded Lauren was, I had a hard time believing that that was something Lauren would do so quickly. On top of that, the reader gets very little of the tension that comes along with wanting to date someone, wondering if they are liked in return, the anticipation of a first kiss and other general feelings of infatuation. There were a few lines about how attracted they were to the other and physical desire for each other, but they were quick and lost in the descriptive narrative of the surroundings. And when things did begin to develop between them, it was all very casual. There were no moments of “OMG she’s holding my hand,” or “holy shit we’re kissing,” or “we just had sex in a fairly public space, and I regret nothing,” or “and I can’t wait to do it again!” There is very little built-up tension before things happen, they just… happen.
[SPOILER FREE ZONE]
Despite my personal criticisms about the book, I still genuinely enjoyed The Grim Assistant. The book made me laugh and had some tear-jerking scenes that hit me right in the feels as Sam navigated her new role as an assistant to Margo. The new take on classic paranormal creatures, the tackling the problematic “bury your gays” trope and making it successful, and well-developed characters make me excited to see where the “Tales from the Grim” series goes from here. I’m also interested to see if future books in the series will continue to focus on Sam and Lauren or if the perspectives will shift to a different set of characters.
Regardless of where the next book does or doesn’t go, I’m excited for when it comes out. And The Grim Assistant hasn’t even technically hit the bookshelves yet! The Grim Assistant will be released on August 5th and can be bought directly from the publisher, NineStar Press, or at other online sources such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon (pre-orders are available on these platforms as well).
3.5 out of 5 Rainbows
Recommended Reader: Anyone looking for an urban fantasy novel that is unapologetically queer; anyone looking for a book that has fantastic characters to Stan over; or anyone who is looking for a night or weekend read that will make them chuckle at certain profanities in some scenes and a little teary in others.
Book Provided by Author: The Queerblr was provided a copy of The Grim Assistant for free by Jodi Hutchins for the purpose of doing a review; this has in no way affected the review and rating of the book that was written by The Queerblr.