Sunday, May 29, 2011

THOUGHTS on: Jennifer Estep's "Spider's Bite"

Title: "Spider's Bite"

Author: Jennifer Estep

Series: Elemental Assassin 001

Genre: Urban Fantasy

(Review written May 29th, 2011)

I just finished reading "Spider's Bite," the first in the Elemental Assassin series by Jennifer Estep, and I enjoyed it. Gin Blanco is an assassin known as "the Spider." A last-minute job that seems like a quick way to make big bucks turns out to be a set-up, a ploy to frame Gin for killing corporate whistle-blower Gordon Giles after killing her. Gin is soon caught between trying to figure out who set her up, so she can kill them before they kill her, and along the way we meet Finnegan Lane, Gin's foster brother; the Devreaux sisters, a pair of dwarven sisters with interesting talent sets; and Donovan Caine, perhaps the only non-corrupt cop left in Ashland. Donovan's partner was hit by Gin before the events of “Spider's Bite”, and while Donovan Caine is willing to call a truce with Gin in order to find out who was behind the murder of Gordon Giles, he is not willing to forget that has sworn to bring to justice the assassin who killed his partner.

I thought "Spider's Bite" was a good, solid start to a series. Like an urban fantasy heroine should be, Gin Blanco is tough, capable and confident. And a little quirky, in that she is a bit of a foodie, and quite enjoys the classes she takes at the local college as her "cover" as a perpetual college student. As an assassin Gin is understandably morally off-centre, but she still holds fast to her own set of morals and honour, and is therefore admirable. Gin also comes off as vulnerable at times, usually when she struck by unbidden memories of people she cared for. These parts are (to me) quite brief, however. I like seeing a bit more vulnerability in my heroines, in order to better connect with them, but since this is only the start of the series, I suspect this may develop with further installments. And on further contemplation, I realize that the brevity of these parts does a good job of illustrating Gin's mental state. As an urban fantasy, "Spider's Bite" is written in first person, and so these moments of vulnerability are necessarily portrayed as short, because Gin, at this point in her life, will not let herself be vulnerable. Continuing along this line of thought, the book's portrayal of Gin's attraction to Donovan Caine might also be skewed by either conscious or unconscious editing on Gin's part: although she admits that Donovan's idealistic moral view is rare and admirable, her attraction is primarily portrayed as physical, with several descriptions of Donovan's physical attributes, and what Gin would like to do with, ahem, said attributes. A possible way of reading this, however, is that this asymmetry reflects not the compositional proportions of Gin's actual attraction to Donovan, but rather only what Gin will admit to. I suspect now that it may actually be Donovan's moral uprighteousness that primarily attracts her: here is an honourable man with a pure moral code that Gin, a bit unhappy and uneasy with the extreme boundaries of her own moral code, wishes she could, but could never actually adhere to. All in all, I liked Gin, and how she was portrayed. I especially appreciated that Gin wasn't a hotheaded, reckless heroine (although those heroine's have their places too).

Unfortunately I wasn't as pleased with the portrayal of Donovan Caine. Although we are told that Donovan has an upstanding moral code, and he certainly shows priggishness in adhering to his code, I never really found a part where this priggishness translated into an attractive quality. After all, honour is sexy, right? Or at least, it can be portrayed as such. For example, the moment in George R. R. Martin's “Game of Thrones” where Lord Eddard Stark claims the heartbreaking responsibility of executing his daughter's direwolf puppy? Or the moment in “To Kill a Mockingbird” when Atticus Finch asks “Do you really think so?” when facing the lynch mob (not to mention Jem's obstinacy to abandon his father)? Shivers[1]. Not that I require all heroes to have the moral fibre of Atticus Finch, but I never came across any scene like this with Donovan Caine. His moral uprighteousness was usually portrayed by him showing disappointment or outright disapproval towards Gin's actions and values. And so it was a bit difficult for me to like him, or understand why Gin found him attractive. Unless there really is just a physical attraction. In which case, sure Donovan Caine is described as physically appealing, seeing as I like dark hair and hazel eyes as much as the next girl, but then Gin becomes much less interesting. Also, while his loyalty in his partner is, I suppose, commendable, the academic in me abhors the fact that this is blind loyalty. His lack of research into his partner to see whether his loyalty is justified irks me. I certainly wouldn't go making vows on public television without making sure I had collected all the relevant information. Again, this is the first in the series, so although I didn't find Donovan particularly likeable in this installment, we shall see. Although since this is an urban fantasy, and not a romance, I suppose I shouldn't have the expectation that I ought to feel attracted to the heroine's love-interest (my criteria #2 for categorizing a romance as one that fulfils its duties to its readers,) and certainly not so early. The romance in urban fantasy series usually comes a bit later in the series.

Prose: B (Not bad, but I felt that Gin as narrator told us too much about how the world and magic in it worked in words, instead of showing us with observations)

Plot: C+ (No holy-shit moments, but I don't think "Spider's Bite" set out to thrill and astonish us with plot twists and turns, so I had no problem with this.)

Characters: B (Gin was interesting, and the side characters like Finn and the Devreaux sisters were quite interesting and amusing, but the main love interest, Donovan, fell flat for me)

World-building: C+ (fairly standard urban fantasy, cities with dwarves, giants and vampires, and so far a fairly standard magic system aligned in terms of elements)

X-factor: A (I enjoyed it)


[1] Er, It occurs to me now that my love for Atticus Finch may not be the norm. Or is it? I don't recall other girls in my 1oth grade class sighing over Atticus...(or any of the characters in any book we were assigned to read.)

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