Friday, February 19, 2010

[Review] 'Spider's Bite' by Jennifer Estep

Title: Spider’s Bite Writer: Jennifer Estep Pages: 395 Genre: Urban Fantasy Standalone/Series: First in the Elemental Assassin Books Publisher: Pocket Books Bodies litter the pages of this first entry in Estep's engrossing Elemental Assassin urban fantasy series. In the corrupt Southern metropolis of Ashland, weather witches mingle with vampires, giants, and dwarves. A mysterious client hires assassin Gin Blanco, known as the Spider, to murder a whistle-blowing financial officer named Gordon Giles. Then the client attempts a double cross and brutally kills Gin's mentor. Now Gin, a stone elemental with a hard-boiled attitude, a closely guarded heart, and a penchant for throwing knives, has to join forces with one of the few honest cops in Ashland, sexy detective Donovan Caine, who hates her for killing his partner. ‘Spider’s Bite’ has received quite the attention of late in the urban fantasy circles, which did prod my curiosity. Thanks to Pocket Books, I can confirm or to disprove the claims that this is a pretty good novel. At first ‘Spider’s Bite’ presented more pet peeves than reasons to turn the pages, but the novel grew on me at a slow, but steady pace to the point, where I was adamant to reach the end and see the bloody culmination. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves now, shall we. What lured me in and kept me intrigued by Estep’s venture into Urban Fantasy were the worldbuilding decisions. I believe that this is the first urban fantasy, where the supernatural has gone mainstream and integrated with our own world. In these pages the reader will find an asylum for the magically insane, a nightclub owned by a vampire with sexual services provided by vampires and a beauty salon/healing spot run by a socialite dwarf with Air Elementalism. The setting is extraordinary in the sense that there is no secrecy, which has been a staple in the urban fantasy genre. In Ashland, however, humans walked among, befriended and even fornicated and married giants, dwarves and vampires. Estep introduces ideas I had longed to see developed, but despite the originality I wished I had been given a more detailed look into this society. I imagine it logical to not spend too many words on demographics, when the focus of the story falls elsewhere, but I would have liked more depth and background on this world. Were the magic races ever hidden? What is this new brand of vampires that does not fear the sunlight? What were the rules to becoming an elemental, since all the races have demonstrated the ability to harbor some of that power? Are there any more races? I am counting on the author to tackle on these issues in more detail in the upcoming installments of this series. Gin Blanco alternated between a character I loved and a character I hated. As the Spider, Gin is different from many a female tough chicks. She is not an enforcer; she does not stand up to fight wars against a world-threatening enemy; she does not have morals. She’s paid to kill and she does that without mercy, regret or second thoughts. Gin is an assassin and knows it. This amoral nature makes her a grey area character, although most of the assassinations hold an altruistic streak. In this regard I can say that Estep is holding back, because all the victims had earned their murder. However, in general Gin is a tomboy alpha, who is primal in her urges and gets what she wants. This is most evident in the romantic subplot with detective Donovan Caine, where Gin shows aggressive sexual predator instincts and keeps the man under her thumb. So far in urban fantasy, the female protagonist falls in love in a man, who is super and ahead in the supernatural dealing, which makes her dependent of him. The situation here is vice versa. However, I do have several issues with Gin. For starters I do not think that a character should be broken and battered by a family tragedy and/or tortured to become dangerous fighters in a cruel world. The trope gained popularity with Batman, but I see it overused. Nevertheless, it would have worked for me, if the devastating events that shaped Gin as an assassin were not pushed into my face right from the start and at an inappropriate moment as well. Sure, readers must know more about the protagonist and establish a connection with him/her, but the way Estep handles it is intrusive and feels like a trick trigger to make me feel something, when in reality she is breaching Gin’s character integrity. As one of the best assassins, I imagine Gin keep her head in the game and reminisce after completion and not see her scars and start a trip down memory lane. It seems illogical, because she has those scars for 17 years and by that time the memory associated with those should not pop during a job, because Gin would have trained her brain better. But of course, this is my take on assassins. A different pet peeve involves the prose. Estep is fond of word pairs and word groupings and I was treated to a lot of ‘silverstone knives’, ‘chicory coffee’, ‘regret and guilt’ and listing her usual arsenal. I can imagine that while writing a novel the time elapsed between uses of these phrases seems sufficient, but to me it just popped up a little two frequent and in greater detail than it would be needed. As far as the story goes, I give props to Estep for the entertaining plot and adventurous story of vengeance. There really is nothing worse than a killing-machine woman scorned and the determination with which Gin tracks down Fletcher’s murderer is admirable. You can expect a lot in ‘Spider’s Bite’. Tracking suspects, black mailing accomplices, gathering information from private contracts, spying on the enemy, hostage situations, uncovering conspiracies and a growing body count. All is accounted for and the fans of these tropes and ideas will have a field trip. Verdict: [B--] I am still a bit on the fence. While ‘Spider’s Bite’ offered moments that I loved and kept me reading, there were too many pet peeves and unexplained aspects of the world for me to keep reading onward. But I can’t say that there are enough reasons to say that this is a bad novel either, because what I did not like as execution may be only a matter of personal taste.


furiousBall said...

as a regular reader, and moderate sci-fi reader... i have to ask, why do the majority of sci-fi covers look like romantic novel covers (painting of sexy character)?

SQT said...

FB-- In the case of books like this, there's often a romantic element to the story. I started to read this one (Harry got to the review before I did) and it's definitely going for some kind of romance. In fact, that was my pet peeve. Right from the get-go the main character was supposedly sizing up a rival only to be having lascivious thoughts while looking at him. Weird and distracting.

Sullivan McPig said...

Yup, there's lots of urban/paranormal romances out there, hence the sexy dames.

And having a world where the supernaturals mainstream isn't that new, I've read more books where this is the case.