fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsurban fantasy book reviews Jennifer Estep Elemental Assassin 1. Spider's BiteSpider’s Bite by Jennifer Estep

The atmosphere of Spider’s Bite might be described as “Southern-fried noir.” The setting is Ashland, an Appalachian city where magic is openly known and a ruthless magical mobster has her fingers in every pie. Most of the cops are corrupt. The hair is big and the food is gloriously unhealthy.

Gin Blanco is an assassin. She takes pride in her skill and doesn’t waste a lot of time brooding about her chosen career. Her profession makes her an unlikely heroine, but her tough, snarky voice and her surprisingly strong sense of ethics are likely to win you over in spite of yourself. She’s a fun character to follow, and to live vicariously through, for a few hundred pages. You might find yourself wondering whether you would have what it takes — not necessarily the willingness to kill people, but the cleverness to get away with it. I knew she’d hooked me when she caused trouble for a waiter and I got angry, only to think a moment later, “Wait, she kills people and you’re worried about that?” Oh, and she tries to be well-rounded. Gin is a great cook and dabbles in art.

She does have a few tics (“Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy,” “get dead”) and a tendency to indulge in lustful daydreams at the worst possible moments. Jennifer Estep draws her character vividly enough, though, that these quirks feel less like “things that annoy me about the writing” than “things that would annoy me about Gin Blanco, if I met her in real life.”

Estep then takes this deliciously fun character and throws her into a suspenseful plot. She takes a lucrative job, only to be double-crossed by the client. Now, Gin must learn the true identity of her client and avenge a dead friend before she “gets dead” herself. To do this, she has to team up with Donovan Caine, quite possibly the only honest cop in Ashland. Sparks fly between Gin and Donovan, though their connection is an unlikely one. Not only are they on opposite sides of the law, Gin is responsible for the murder of Donovan’s partner.

There are a few twists that aren’t too hard to guess, but Gin’s engaging voice, gutsiness, and resourcefulness keep the pages turning. When I finished Spider’s Bite, my first thought was, “What a fun book!” I will definitely check out the rest of the Elemental Assassin series.

~Kelly Lasiterfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews

urban fantasy book reviews Jennifer Estep Elemental Assassin 1. Spider's BiteAs Kelly said, this was fun. There were a few places where the plot felt contrived or where characters behaved or spoke in a way that served the plot more than reality, but I enjoyed the story and the romance and look forward to reading book two. I read this in audio format. It was produced by Audible Frontiers/Brilliance Audio and read by Laura Fortgang who did a nice job. I will read the next book in audio format, too.

~Kat Hooper

Spider’s Bite by Jennifer Estep urban fantasy book reviews paranormal romanceSpider’s Bite, by Jennifer Estep, is the first book in her ELEMENTAL ASSASSIN series. Plainly I was not the reader for this book. As we know, not every book pleases every reader. Let me give a quick overview of the story and talk about the things I did like before I discuss the problems I had with this.

Spider’s Bite is a paranormal romance set in Ashland, Tennessee. Gin Blanco is an assassin, one who can command an element, a magical ability that is fairly common in this city. Gin, whose professional name is Spider, can sense and command stone, and ice. After her family was murdered and she was badly tortured by a fire elemental when she was thirteen, Gin was taken in by Fletcher, a barbecue cook and assassin himself, who became her mentor. When her latest job turns out to be a set-up and Fletcher is murdered, Gin goes on the offensive. She teams up with a city detective, Donovan Caine, who is her natural enemy because she murdered his partner. In spite of this obstacle, sexual-attraction sparks fly between Caine and Gin almost immediately.

There was a lot to like here. While the elemental powers are not described adequately throughout the book (for instance, ice and not water is considered an “element,”) Gin’s relationship with stone is wonderfully done. Gin not only can manipulate stone, she can sense or read impressions from it. She uses this to cast protection wards around her apartment and she describes various buildings as happy, or sad or angry, as they absorb vibrations from the humans. Fletcher is a likeable character. Some of Gin’s smart-talking first person point of view is witty. I particularly liked that Gin is allowed to grieve the loss of her father-figure throughout the book, in a way that is realistic. Too many urban fantasy writers shift the character into vengeance mode, with poetic pauses for grief. Gin’s is real and comes upon her at unexpected times, just like real life. Gin Blanco, as a play on words in moon-shiner territory and as a corruption of the name she left behind after her family was attacked, is good. I also must say that Gin’s pumpkin puree, peanut butter and banana sandwich, with its hat-tip to Elvis, is something I plan to try one of these days.

Here are the things that didn’t work for me.

The romance. Caine and Gin both seem fine with the idea that they will hook up like crazy, but then later, when this case is solved, he will hunt her down and try to kill her. There were two real problems with this relationship, for me. The first is what the wonderful writer and film critic Roger Ebert called the Idiot Plot. The word “Idiot” is not a swipe at the writer or the characters. It’s a conflict in which, if Character A said two sentences to Character B, the conflict would be resolved. (Example: Character A: “No, I’m not having an affair with her. She’s my tax accountant.”) Gin could tell Caine why his partner was targeted for death. It might not change things… but then again, it probably would. Gin makes up increasingly lame reasons why she won’t tell him. As for Caine, I don’t find a man who enjoys sex with a woman he plans to murder sexy, I find him creepy. The more serious problem, though, is that while their lingering looks and mutual fantasies, which usually happen while Gin is pointing a weapon at someone, were steamy, the sex scenes were not. They were rather bland.

Mean-for-no-reason behavior. Gin is an assassin. I should lower my expectations of her behavior for that, certainly, and I’m pretty much fine with the people she kills throughout the book. In one instance, though, Gin hurts a bystander (a waiter) to get out of a bad situation. I don’t have a problem with her hurting the waiter. Gin is in survival mode at that moment. I do have a problem with her and her partner Finn, snickering about the injured waiter via cell phone, only pages later. I lost my respect for Gin at that point.

By-the-numbers structure. In the first chapter we watch Gin kill a woman after lecturing her about why she’s going to die. This job has nothing to do with the story; it merely introduces the character in a dramatic way, and drops in some back-story about the magicals who inhabit Ashland. The entire book felt like it was built from a kit. Esteps’s lack of world-building is also disappointing. Ashland is run by an elemental crime boss. What does that mean, exactly? What does Ashland look like? There is tension between “North-town” and “South-town.” How does this tension manifest? All the people with tattoos live in South-town? That isn’t world-building.

Lack of care with details. The biggest clue for me was that the names of Gin’s partner, Finnigan Lane, and her lover, Donovan Caine, rhyme. This is the mark of a writer who didn’t spend much time with her characters or her world. To me, this book felt cranked out, with no care given to second reads or revision. On the other hand, the fact that I kept noticing that Finn’s and Caine’s names rhymed tells me I was never emotionally engaged, because if I had been I probably would have forgiven that.

While the plot was formulaic, Estep did keep it moving. This was not a good read for me, but if you enjoy a rather generalized Southern voice, lots of action, an interesting magical system, and aren’t hung up on world-building details, this may be right up your alley.

~Marion Deeds

Elemental Assassin — (2010- ) Publisher: “My name is Gin, and I kill people.” My name is Gin Blanco. They call me the Spider — the most feared assassin in the South (and a part-time cook at the Pork Pit BBQ joint.) As a Stone elemental, I can hear the whispers of the gravel beneath my feet and feel the vibrations of the soaring mountains above me, though I don’t use my powers on the job unless I absolutely have to. Call it professional pride. After a ruthless Air elemental double-crossed me and killed my handler, I’m out for revenge. And I’ll exterminate anyone who gets in my way. I may look hot in a miniskirt, but I’m still one of the bad guys. Which is why I’m in trouble when irresistibly rugged Detective Donovan Caine agrees to help. The last thing a coldhearted killer needs when she’s battling a magic more powerful than her own is a sexy distraction… especially when he wants her dead just as much as the enemy.

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  • Kelly Lasiter

    KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.