Spider’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.