If Urban Fantasy were a poker game, and UF authors were the players, Jennifer Estep would be the one who sat down at a high stakes game full of steely-eyed gamblers, pushed a huge pile of chips into the middle of table and said, "All in." In a genre full of gritty locales and bada** heroines, Estep found a way to up the ante.
Gin Blanco, the heroine of Spider's Bite, is an assassin. She's not a former assassin. She's not an assassin in the service of some higher cause, she has no special dispensation from angels or demons or any other supernatural group that hands out licenses to kill. She's an assassin for hire and she takes real pride in a job well done. Gin does prefer to kill people who deserve it - she does a fair amount of "pro bono" work, as she calls it - but this is one book that doesn't gloss over the fact that even her charitable activities leave bodies on the floor, wives without husbands, children without fathers.
The plot is fast-paced, a real page-turner. As the book opens, Gin is just finishing one job and, once the deed is done, she's immediately sent on another. She prefers a little more prep time, but the contract is worth $5 million and the job doesn't sound too hard: all she has to do is kill a middle aged accountant within a certain time frame. For an assassin of Gin's caliber, nothing could be easier. But just as she's about to pull the trigger, Gin discovers she's been double-crossed: the client who took out the contract on the accountant took out another on Gin herself. The plan was for Gin's death to tie up any loose ends related to the accountant's murder and keep suspicion away from the client. But things don't go as planned. Gin kills the assassin hired to kill her rather than the other way around, and then she goes looking for revenge.
Gin isn't squeamish about killing, but she does have a softer side and she's utterly dedicated to the few people in the world who she really cares about. Saying she'd protect them with her life is putting it mildly. I found Gin surprisingly likable. She's so confident, so at ease with herself, and she throws herself into whatever she does 110%. I was really convinced by her personality, by the mix of deep feeling and heartless violence, and I rooted for her even as the bodies piled up.
The fantasy aspect here has a lot of supernatural species running amok in the world - dwarves, vampires, and giants - but especially elementals. Elementals have magic related to one of the four elements: fire, stone, air, and ice. In some cases, two. Gin is a Stone elemental, and the villain of Spider's Bite is an Air elemental. The magic is pretty thoroughly integrated into the story, but all of the characters behaved like humans. There didn't seem to be any kind species-centric personality traits - no werewolves with pack instinct, no vampires who can't control their bloodlust, etc. This made the magic feel a lot more mundane...which might be a good or bad thing, depending on your perspective.
Spider's Bite didn't make me jump up and down with glee, but it's probably the best series-starter I've read in a couple of months, and I'm eager to read the sequel.