Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Don't Mess with a Killer Chick

One thing you can say about the field of Urban Fantasy fiction? It’s a crowded one, and getting more so every day. (Seriously, isn’t everyone writing one now?) Another thing you can say? As happens with most genres, the majority of UF stories tend to follow a similar formula (their authors obviously adherents to the school of “if it ain’t broke...”). 
That tried-and-true formula usually goes something like this... There's always a youngish kickbutt heroine--a gal who’s really good at, well, wiping the floors with bad guys (who totally deserve their really unpleasant fates, by the way). She generally has a friend or two she can rely on when things don’t go as planned (which is a very good thing, because nothing ever goes as planned). And, in between hanging out with her pals and engaging in all that bootay-kicking, the heroine always gets a hot love interest to spice things up. (Yeah, so the hunky dude is predictable; who really wants to read about her getting busy with the dweeby, schlubby guy, anyway?)
So, that’s the general pattern. Like everything else, though, it’s what the author does within that framework which defines how interesting the book is, and how well (or not) he/she sets the story apart from what everyone else is busy doing, in the packed-like-sardines field of UF.
Leaping into the fray with Spider’s Bite (the first in her so-called “Elemental Assassin” series), author Jennifer Estep succeeds in providing some neat and interesting twists on an old theme.

The first twist has to do with the heroine, herself. Gin Blanco is, no bones about it, an honest-to-goodness assassin. That’s her job from the get-go; it’s not something she suddenly falls into after Bad Thing X happens early in the book. Instead, from the moment we meet her, she’s a full-fledged killer-for-hire, known professionally as The Spider, with her own little support staff (a handler plus a sometimes-partner). She’s a master of the tools of her trade, with knives being her go-to weapon of choice. (She also has a little somethin'-somethin' extra... but I’ll let Gin tell you about that, herself. ;)) She isn’t on a personal mission to catch bad guys who’ve done her wrong; she accepts contracts to kill almost anyone, provided the money is right. (Note that--appearances to the contrary--she isn’t completely immoral, though; she draws the line at offing children or genuinely-good people.) Now 30 years old, she’s been in the business for a long time, amassing a small fortune. Knowing how bored she’d be if she didn’t have the job is the only reason she continues to do it.
Fresh from a gig which involved masquerading as an insane asylum patient, Gin wants nothing more than a little vacation. (As she says, pushing mushy peas around on a plate and playing with crayons for a couple of weeks does not a vacation make.) That, of course, isn’t in the cards, though, and when she meets up with her handler--Fletcher--to report on the just-completed mission, he tells her she’s got a new job. Effective immediately. This one is so urgent that she has less than 36 hours to kill the target. The real kicker--and why Fletcher accepted such a crazy last-second job? It comes with a $5-million paycheck. 
That kind of money never goes hand-in-hand with a cakewalk job, and this case is no exception. The target is a whistle-blowing accountant, a man whose bad news will affect to the most influential and powerful woman in the city, businesswoman Mab Monroe... who also happens to be the strongest Elemental in the region. Elementals are a Big Deal, especially the really strong ones. (There are four elements which a very rare number of people are connected to and can control: fire, air, water, and stone.) Mab is a fire elemental, and her powers are legendary.
The diligent accountant has discovered that someone's been embezzling a lot of money from one of Mab’s companies. That’s just the kind of news that will make for one exceptionally angry Fire Elemental. To hopefully avoid dealing with her fiery wrath, an executive at the company has commissioned The Spider to take out Mr. Accountant before he has the chance to hand his information over to the authorities. (Seems reasonable, right? I mean, if you’re a criminal...)
Ever the professional, Gin comes up with a workable gameplan and puts it into action the following night. There’s just a slight hitch, however, and The Spider finds out that she's been double-crossed. Gin winds up on the run, beat-up and bloody, along with her partner and the police detective. (Hunky-love-interest Alert!)
The story then follows the trio’s efforts to evade the bad guys long enough to figure out just who the bad guys are, before bringing them to justice (of whatever form that may take). There’s plenty of action, tension, and dangerous situations, all of which do a nice job of keeping the plot moving forward at a steady pace.
Estep peoples her story with an interesting group of characters, which further serves the plot. Besides plain-vanilla humans and the Elementals, we meet vampires, dwarves, and giants. It's an enjoyable mixture of beings with their different powers and abilities, and I like how they're integrated into society.
Most of all, I find Gin fascinating. She has a dark backstory (again, part of the formula), but it’s an original and believable one. She’s tough because she has to be, now, yet she grew up dreaming of being a princess. Despite her outer toughness, she manages to have good relationships with her work associates and friends, and that rings true, as well. Finally, there’s the clincher: I really appreciate the fact that Gin owns her sexuality. She isn’t a shrinking virgin (and thank Venus, since that hackneyed chestnut has been Done. To. Death.), but is, instead, a normal, mature, adult woman (yeah, yeah, as “normal” as an assassin can be), with actual desires and needs of her own. Given that her budding relationship with the lawman is, um, complicated (in every sense of the word), what results is both some steamy chemistry and a lot of understandable frustration and confusion. (More “real” relationship than fairy tale, then, which works perfectly in a book this gritty.)
Did I expect to like a book about an assassin? Well, yeah, actually I did. (I don't tend to be judgmental about characters; if the author makes the heroine or hero believable, I’m in.) Still, I know the premise will probably give a lot of other readers pause. So, let me say this. If you’re in the market for a solid UF story, set in a not-so-different-world from the one you know, with some genuinely interesting characters, then you could do a lot worse than putting Spider's Bite on your list. 
GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4 out of 5 mousies