by Jennifer Estep
Pocket Books – $7.99
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Jennifer Estep was one of the first authors I reviewed, and she has been a longterm reader of this blog ever since. This is quite flattering, but it makes me a less-than-partial reviewer. However, I do have my usual mix of things to say about Spider’s Bite.
Ms. Estep knows that I’m not a big fan of Urban Fantasy. She also knows — and has discussed on her blog often — that fans of her previous novels might not appreciate going from campy and silly to dark and gritty. I have mixed feelings about Spider’s Bite. It was certainly an easier read than many of the urban fantasies I’ve tried to read over the past year (a lot arrive in the mail), but I also probably gave it more of a chance than the authors I don’t know. And I think that’s not a bad thing. After all, I never read a cyberpunk novel before I read Otherland, and the only reason I picked it up was because the author was Tad Williams.
However, this novel is just about one of the darkest and grittiest that I ever managed to finish. The pages are laced with foul language (especially the f-bomb) and every battle is drenched in blood. Most of the villains are the worst kind of scum. Gin gets away with being the heroine of the novel only because she isn’t as bad as everyone else. She lost her family in a fire and survived on the streets by being tough until Fletcher, who would become her handler, took her in. Now she’s Ashland’s top assassin.
Ashland is a fictional southern metropolis in the Appalachian mountains. It makes Gotham City looks like a paradise. The cops are so corrupt that assassins like Gin have a thriving business taking care of some illegal justice. Gin is usually careful about the clients she takes on. She wants to be sure the would-be victim really deserves to die. However, she gets greedy and doesn’t check out this next (and highly profitable) job quite as thoroughly as she should have. As added incentive, if she takes this job, she can retire. When she’s double-crossed, she ends up leaving her victim alive and barely escaping from an honest cop named Donavan Caine. Who has good — and personal — reasons to want to put Gin in jail.
Some dings. I felt that Ms. Estep could have done a bit more research in several areas. Erasing files on a desktop computer is rarely good enough, especially a networked computer where files are backed up nightly. Also most charitable missions do not demand repentance in exchange for charity. They’re looking to touch hearts and minds, not to forcibly convert. Other details were glossed over, such as tricky escapes. Some of this I expect — let’s not get bogged down in detail — but we also don’t want to make things too easy on the character.
For the most part, Gin’s foul-mouthed bark is worse than her bite. She talks tough about torturing those who cross her, but clever plotting spares the reader. Gin grows as a character, ending up with a softer heart than when she started. She allows Caine to believe terrible things about her because she doesn’t want to disillusion him. She is willing to throw herself into harm’s way to spare her friends.
The nonhuman races in Spider’s Bite includes vampires, but don’t expect your usual vampire mythologies. They don’t seem to be undead at all, and can go out day and night. They are no more difficult to kill than humans. They often seem rather weak. There are also giants, dwarves, and elementals, who can command the elements of earth, fire, air and ice. Ms. Estep once explained on her blog that she chose these because they are opposites — fire and ice, earth and air.
Like Ms. Estep’s previous comic-book novels, Spider’s Bite is meant to be pure entertainment. For me, it was more readable than Maria Lima’s Blood Lines, but not quite at the level of Kelly Gay’s The Better Part of Darkness. For it to achieve that level, I’d want to see more interpersonal relationships, which I understand are coming in future volumes. It also stayed away from my red flags. The plot devices she used in Bigtime are gone completely: no more will you be able to guess secret identities (yes, there are a few) the first time you hear a character’s name. Fans of Ms. Estep’s previous novels should know to expect something completely different by the cover alone. Fans of urban fantasy should enjoy the dark tone, the tough heroine and the inventive mythologies.