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Spotlight on Spider’s Bite

February 17, 2011

(Spotlights contain spoilers.)

If you’ve read me before, you know I loved Jennifer Estep’s Bigtime series, where superheroes play out comic and romance tropes excellently.  The first time I read Karma Girl, I considered it a bit cheesy, but when I went back to it, I didn’t find that to be a fault.  Estep is obviously more Lynda Carter and Adam West than Miller and Bendis and Brubaker and the like, but so’s an entire generation of people who never got around to reading the comics.  Nothing wrong with that.

I was less enthused for Spider’s Bite, her first “Elemental Assassin” book, her first “urban fantasy.”  The term “urban fantasy” has always seemed poorly-named to me; when asking around, people generally look at me blankly and say “Uh?” or “African-American?”  Since “urban” has been a code for “black” for a while–a really stupid one–it makes sense that it’s confusing.  Heck, even I didn’t know how to explain it until it came to me last night: Urban Fantasy is a fantasy novel set in today’s world.  See, I’ve only heard it thrown around here and there casually, as if I should already know what it means, so I had to suss it out myself.  Does it always have to take place in a city?  IDK.  I guess I could look it up on Wikipedia, but to me, it’s a catch phrase that means little, like “chick lit.”  In chick lit you have the whole concept of the woman’s journey.  In urban fantasy, you have monsters and stuff and a city.  And I guess sometimes the burbs too.

Why not “contemporary fantasy”?  Why not “modern fantasy”?  What’s so important about the urban setting, and the use of the word?  Someone else will have to explain it to me.

But yeah, so we have Estep and we have urban fantasy.  Estep, the woman who didn’t go grim-and-gritty with her comic romance books.  So it was no surprise to me that when she tries grim-and-gritty, it falls a bit flat.

I will say, before I get into details, that I did enjoy this book.  I will probably read the next one, if I don’t talk myself out of it to get back on track with my reading goals for the year.  (And maybe even if I do.)  But this book is pretty darn flawed.  Let’s talk about it.

First off, for the first hundred pages or so, Estep writes as if she’s contractually obligated to drop the f-bomb every twenty pages, which makes for some clumsy inclusions.  As we get to know her protagonist, the awkwardly-named Gin Blanco (I guess I could get used to it, but a name coming off as probably meaning “White White” is as twitch-making to me as the clunky syllables of the name itself), we learn that Gin is a bit of a cream puff who’s of course nearly perfect at being an assassin.  Or maybe it’s Estep who’s the cream puff.  I can’t tell if the f-bomb usage is meant as a way for us to realize that Gin’s talking a big game or if we’re supposed to believe she’s as hardened as she likes to think she is.  Either way, the word drops as heavily as the character’s name. THUNK.  Oh.  There it is, at my feet.  On the other hand, when she uses “fucking” as an adjective when she’s angry, it flows easier.  Not sure why.

As the story picks up, the word “bitch” is tossed around about fourteen times as much until it practically loses its meaning.  Oh, gendered insults.  You never get less annoying.

The world itself is at once fully realized within the city of Ashland itself, and yet missing something in the big picture.  We can go in believing, “This is the world as it always was,” but we still need something from the author that we don’t quite get.  Ashland then begins to feel like an island of fantasy in an otherwise normal world.  No comments about how vampires, dwarves, and giants fit into the grand scheme of things.

Props, however, to making vampires pretty worthless.  That’s always a nice inclusion.  Still not really sure about the vampire process in this world, though.  Are vampires made?  Are they born?  Is it a genetic quirk?  A vampire in the book has a human (?) sister who has a human (?) child.  Can the vampire character herself not breed?  If so, why not, as the other non-human races obviously can?

Estep’s plot moves along somewhat slowly compared to the more fast-paced Bigtime books, but that’s not a terrible thing.  There are pretty much only two suspects for the mystery aspect of it, which narrows the fun down quite a bit, but recently I’ve been more interested in finding the proof than the whodunnit.  (I blame Psych, where the mysteries are often easily guessable.)  But there were a three things that absolutely grated on me as I read this book:

-One of the Bigtime characters is mentioned.  Those worlds don’t even PRETEND to collide.  That’s just silly and smacks a little of “Look, fans, isn’t that cool?”  I’ve gotta go with no.  It comes off like she believes her readership cares so much about her other books that they’ll be pleased to see this impossible connection, whereas for a reader like me, it just takes me out of the crafted fantasy world.

-Gin’s entire internal monologue when it comes to attraction goes something like this: “FANTASY FANTASY FANTASY. Mmm.”  She thinks something about the love/sex interested, Donovan Caine, and then inevitably the “Mmm” comes.  It’s SO IRRITATING after the third time.  It’s practically a catchphrase, a really really irritating catchphrase, worse than “Where’s the beef?”  I just wanted to scream “THINK SOMETHING ELSE, WOULD YOU?”

-THE QUOTE IS “LAY ON, MACDUFF,” NOT “LEAD ON, MACDUFF.”  She’s so impressed that he’s quoting Shakespeare.  Except, you know, he’s misquoting Shakespeare, and she’s not catching that.  It makes them both look like idiots, and the author as well.

So yeah, OTHER THAN THAT–wait no.  The “twist” at the end was something I guessed from the first time it was mentioned.  What a let-down for the end of the book.

But OTHER THAN THAT, the book was pretty entertaining.

Sigh.

(Oh, and don’t get me started on Estep’s version of the elements.  Stone instead of earth?  As my husband said, “Isn’t she mostly getting readings off of paint and wood, then?”)

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