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Monday, September 13, 2010


Author:  Jennifer Estep
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings:  Violence5, Sensuality2-4, Humor2-3
Publisher and Titles:  Pocket
      .2   "Poison"
(free on-line prequel short storyFinn)

      .3   "Web of Deceit" (free on-line prequel short storyFletcher)
      .4  "Spider's Bargain" (free on-line prequel short storyGin
    1       Spider’s Bite (1/2010)
    1.2   "Web of Death" (free on-line short story—Gin
    2       Web of Lies (5/2010)
    2.2  "Wasted" (free on-line short storyFinn)
    3       Venom (9/2010)
    3.2  "Tangled Dreams" (free on-line short storyJo-Jo & Sophia)
    3.4  "Tangled Schemes" (free on-line short storyBria)
    4       Tangled Threads (4/2011)
    4.2   "Spider's Nemesis" (free on-line short storyMab Monroe)
    5       Spider's Revenge (9/2011)
    5.5  "Thread of Death" (e-novella, 2/2012)
    6       By a Thread (2/2012) 
    6.2  "Haints and Hobwebs" (short story in The Mammoth Book of Ghost Romance anthology9/2012)
    7       Widow's Web (8/2012)
    8       Deadly Sting (3/2013)
    8.2   "Parlor Tricks" (short story in Carniepunk anthology7/2013)
    8.5   "Kiss of Venom" (e-novella, 8/2013)
    9       Heart of Venom (8/2013)
  10       The Spider (a prequel novel, 12/2013)
  11       Poison Promise (7/2014)  
  12       Black Widow (11/2014)  
  13       Spider's Trap (7/2015)
  14       Bitter Bite (2/2016)
  14.5    "Unwanted" (e-novella, 7/2016)
  15       Unraveled (8/30/2016) 
  15.5   "Nice Guys Bite" (e-novella, 12/2016)
  16       Snared (4/2017)

Click HERE to go to Estep's "Free Reads" page for links to all of the free on-line short stories set in Gin Blanco's world and explanations as to exactly where each one fits into the series time line. 

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 8/8/2017 to include a review of 
Snared, the 16th novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the series world-building and summaries and/or reviews of all of the preceding novels and novellas.

Warning: I recommend that you always read the preceding novel/novella before reading a given review on this post because there will most likely be some spoilers that would ruin your reading experience.

                      NOVEL 16:  Snared                        
     Irony 101The Spider herself snared in someone else's web... 

     Another week, another few clues trickling in about the Circle, the mysterious group that supposedly runs the city's underworld. Gathering intel on my hidden enemies is a painstaking process, but a more immediate mystery has popped up on my radar: a missing girl.

     My search for the girl begins on the mean streets of Ashland, but with all the killers and crooks in this city, I’m not holding out much hope that she’s still alive.

     A series of clues leads me down an increasingly dark, dangerous path, and I realize that the missing girl is really just the first thread in this web of evil. As an assassin, I’m used to facing down the worst of the worst, but nothing prepares me for this new, terrifying enemy—one who strikes from the shadows and is determined to make me the next victim.  

     A brief plot summary: As Gin and her crew search for Elissa Daniels, the missing half-sister of her friend, Jade Jamison, they discover that the crime is connected to a member of the mysterious Circle, the very organization Gin is currently investigating. When Elissa's kidnapper turns out to be a serial killer who targets young blond women, Gin can't figure out why the Circle would be involved in such a senseless crime spree. A shocking element of the case is that while searching for Elissa, Gin stumbles upon the body of another of the serial killer's victims who happens to have Gin's spider runes drawn carefully on her palms with bright read lipstick. (The cover art references this incident with a graphic display of Gin's own hands.) All the way through the story, Gin keeps trying to put her finger on what's making this whole case seem so wrong to her, but when she finally begins to figure it out, she finds herself in the killer's hands...and is forced (as usual) to rely on her wits and her elemental magic to save herself.

     A review of the series story arc: In Bitter Bite, Gin gained access to several safety-deposit boxes full of Fletcher Lane's research on the Ashland underworld, including many ambiguous references to the Circle, a group that supposedly holds the true power over Ashland's criminal gangs. I have never been able to fully accept this premise because until Bitter Bite, none of the underworld gang leaders ever mentioned the Circle, and currently, none of them seem to know anything about it
. could the Circle be controlling the criminal world behind the scenes without anyone knowing who they are or knowing that they even exist. When I first encountered this previously unknown group in Bitter Bite I thought, O.K., I'll do my best to suspend my disbelief and keep going, but it has been a difficult journey.

     So far, Gin and her team have figured out the identity of at least one member of the Circle—a wealthy, drunken, womanizer named Damian Rivera. In the opening chapter of this book, Gin sneaks into Rivera's mansion to search for incriminating evidence. She is nearly caught when he comes home unexpectedly accompanied by two men—Bruce Porter, Rivera's head of security, and the vampire Hugh Tucker, the Circle's chief enforcer and Gin's long-time nemesis. Gin hides on the roof next to an open window to eavesdrop, and that's when Rivera says something that shocks her beyond belief. In fact, when she hears it she almost falls off the roof. When Tucker tries to discipline the intoxicated Rivera, he sarcastically responds, "Tell me, Hugh, are you still carrying a torch for Eira Snow after all these years?...Still missing your little lovebird?" As we all know, Eira Snow is Gin's late mother. Gin reacts to this comment with both physical and emotional shock: "I gasped, shock jolting through my body like a lightning bolt. I lurched back from the window....My mind struggled to process Rivera's words, as if I were trying to translate some foreign language that I'd never heard before. Hugh Tucker and my mother? Nono, no, no, no. no."

     The shock of her mother's possible relationship with Tucker plus some serious injuries (which come from a later incident) cause Gin to have some nightmarish dreams in which she remembersfor the first time eversome new details about the night Mab Monroe incinerated her mother and sister. O.K., now here's where my disbelief stops being suspended once again. I can see what's happening here. Estep has a plan for the story arc of the next novel or two so she needs to somehow shoehorn these new facts into the storyline. But really, are we to believe that Gin is just now conveniently remembering these details from that long-ago night? To me, this all comes across as extremely implausible. 

     Another problem is that Estep uses two tired, old tropes several times. Each time, I wanted to send the author a plea to stop using these clich
éd telegraphing manipulations to make sure that the reader knows that something weird and unforeseen is on the agenda for later in the story.
>1. Several times Gin sees someone or something and thinks that he/it is familiar but she cannot remember why or where. Her solution is to say, "Oh, well, I'll think about that later" and continues onward with her investigation. 
>2. Frequently, Gin pauses to say that something doesn't seem right about the way they are processing the clues that they are finding, but she tells herself that she doesn't have time just then to stop and think about it any further and moves forward in the same (wrong) direction. (For example: "Something...nagged at me...But I couldn't put my finger on exactly what it was..." and "...something about this whole situation bothered me, some nagging little thing that I couldn't quite put my finger on.")
     All in all, this is a disappointing novel because of its plot construction and predictability. (For example, the identity of the serial killer and the site of his tortures were glaringly obvious to me early on, but Gin and her team never caught on until it was almost too late). All the way to the end of the book, Gin is filled with rage at Tucker because she believes that he let her mother die (plus he has done some horrible things to Gin and her friends in previous books). But the reader (at least this reader) can see that Tucker obviously has had some type of deep past relationship with Gin's family—or at least with her mother (and, I believe, with Gin). Every time he appears on the scene in this book, he gives Gin clues and/or evidence that help her find the missing girl, and every time she is in jeopardy, he sets up the situation so that she somehow escapes discovery or death (even though he essentially trusts her to save herself). I actually found myself wondering if Tucker might actually be her biological father. What a shocker that would be!

     Even though you'll probably be a bit disappointed in this novel, you'll still want to read it if you are a fan of the series because it adds several important pieces to the puzzle of the Circle story arc, particularly a tiny clue to the identity of the Circle's ringleader. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt on the novel's page by clicking on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Snared is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.

     The series heroine is Gin Blanco (real name: Genevieve Snow, aka “the Spider”), who is both a cook and a (temporarily) retired assassin (with a heart of gold, of course), specializing in fancy sandwiches, comfort-food desserts, and lethal stabbings with her silverstone knives. 

     In this world, the elementals (manipulators of fire, ice, stone, and metal) are the top dogs, with more power than the other supernaturals: giants, dwarfs, and vampires (no shape-shifters in this world). The supernaturals live openly among the humans. Gin is a rare stone and ice elemental who lives and works in Ashland, a southern Appalachian city that (at the beginning of the series) is under the Mafia-style control of the villainous Mab Monroe, a fire elemental who may have a link to Gin’s tortured past. Mab controls the town through its human corporate structure and security forces. 

     Gin is an orphan whose family was murdered by Mab Monroe when she was a child. She was raised by Fletcher Lane (aka the Tin Man), an assassin who trained Gin to be his successor. Fletcher began training Gin in all aspects of murder and mayhem almost as soon as she came to live with him and his son, Finnegan (aka Finn). For Gin, dressing all in black and breaking into homes and buildings in the dead of night is perfectly normal, and she doesn't understand why some people object to her life style.

     The series story arc for the first five books involves Gin’s search for information about the murder of her mother and sisters seventeen years ago. In each book, Gin discovers a bit more information about the killer and about the reasons for her family’s murder. Other key characters include Finn Lane (Fletcher’s computer-savvy, womanizing son) and the dwarves Deveraux sisters (Sophia and Jo-Jo) who assist Gin in her adventures.

     Click HERE to go to a web page with links to free excerpts and short stories related to the ELEMENTAL ASSASSIN world. Estep says, "I plan to write at least one short story to go along with each one of the Elemental ELEMENTAL ASSASSIN books. You don’t have to read the short stories to enjoy the books, but I thought that writing the stories would be a way for me to offer something fun and extra to readers."

     The whole idea of elementals as main characters is a fresh and inventive approach to urban fantasy, and Estep is a great storyteller. Gin is a complex woman, dealing with the fallout from her tragic past and trying to punish the person who murdered her family. For most of her existence, she has had to lead a double life, being careful not to allow love or intimacy to touch her heart. In the early books, she is hurt over and over again by her boyfriend Donovan Caine's total disgust for her assassin life, and in the later books she is afraid to trust her new boyfriend's feelings for her—or her feelings for him—because of her fear of losing another loved one. If you like angst-filled, action-crammed urban fantasy and you're looking for something beyond vamps and shifters, I recommend this series.

                 NOVEL 1:  Spider's Bite                 

    In the series opener, we get to know Gin and her way of life. The story follows Gin as she hunts down the air elemental who double-crossed her and killed her handler (and foster father), Fletcher Lane.

      NOVEL 2:  Web of Lies      
     Gin gets involved with a powerful mining tycoon who wants to take over the ancestral lands of Fletcher’s boyhood friend. In the first two books, Gin’s love interest is Donovan Caine, a moralistic, straight-arrow cop who despises her cold and pragmatic outlook on killing and can’t live with her murderous lifestyle. He lusts after her, but then can't get away from her fast enough. 

     In this book, a second love interest emerges for Gin: Owen Grayson, a powerful businessman who meets Gin when she saves his sister’s life. Owen is much more accepting of Gin's violent life style, and their future together looks promising.

                      NOVEL 3:  Venom                      

     Gin tries to save her friend Roslyn (a vampire) from a dangerous stalker—a sociopathic giant who happens to be Mab's chief of security. In Gin's personal life, an old chapter re-opens when her long-lost baby sister Bria comes to town—and she's a cop!

                      NOVEL 4:  Tangled Threads                      

     As this book opens, Gin is continuing her war on Mab and her crew of thuggish giants, one kill at a time, and she's leaving her spider rune at each crime scene to be sure that Mab knows just who is responsible. To complicate the situation, Bria is working to identify and arrest the Spider for all of the murders. Even worse, Mab has a surprise for Gin: an imported assassin who uses electricity as her primary weapon. Elektra LaFleur is a powerful elemental whose electrical talents may be even stronger than Gin's combination of stone and ice. 

     As the story progresses, Gin discovers that Mab is once again determined to have Bria killed—and by the same assassin that she hired to kill Gin. Gin has her work cut out for her as she slashes her way through a host of murderous goons who are all intent on ending her life. On the personal side, Gin's relationship with Owen is getting serious, and she's especially touched when he gifts her with custom-made weapons for Christmas. What a romantic guy! We can also see that there is probably romance ahead for Finn and Bria.

                      NOVEL 5:  Spider's Revenge                      

     As the title implies, Spider's Revenge is all about Gin's final revenge on Mab, the sadistic fire elemental who murdered Gin's mother and sister many years ago, leaving Gin and Bria homeless and damaged. On Estep's web site, she says, "The first five books—Spider's Bite through Spider's Revenge—finish out the first major story arc with Gin and her nemesis and answer a lot of the big questions in the series." 

     WARNING: The following paragraph 
contains some SPOILERS.   
    As the story opens, Gin is in the middle of taking a solo shot at Mab, but she fails when one of Mab's goons steps in front of her and takes the hit. Mab has hired dozens of out-of-town bounty hunters to capture either the Spider or Bria, whom Mab suspects of being close to the Spider. Early on in the book, Mab still does not know that Gin is the Spider, but that changes as the story proceeds. The entire plot revolves around Gin's attempts to kill Mab while avoiding the bounty hunters and trying to protect Bria as well as all of her friends. The life of an urban fantasy heroine is never easy!

     By the end of the story, the situation with Mab has been resolved, and Gin and Owen have finally expressed their mutual (and passionate) love for one another (thus raising the sensuality level of this book to a 4). The climactic showdown between Gin and Mab provides a satisfying denouement in every respect. But don't think that Gin and Owen are going to go off to live in a vine-covered cottage and raise vegetables. Now, every lowlife in Ashland wants to solidify his or her reputation by taking down Gin, so she's still in the Spider business.

                      NOVELLA 5.5: "Thread of Death"                      

     The story follows Gin as she attends Mab Monroe's funeral, which begins peacefully enough, but soon disintegrates into a bloody battle, with attendees ducking behind tombstones and hiding behind the coffin. The point of view is always first person, but alternates among Gin, Jonah McAllister, and Phillip Kincaid, each of whom provides his or her own view of past events, present dangers, and future possibilities.

     A sniper attack and a mysterious, unidentified woman who turns up at the funeral may be clues to the identity of the mysterious M. M. Monroe who is to be Mab's heir—but maybe not. Several comments from Phillip definitely foreshadow the heartbreak that Gin will face in book 7 (Widow's Web).

                   NOVEL 6:  By a Thread                      

     Can we all agree that it is not possible for an urban fantasy heroine to take a peaceful, relaxing vacation? In this book, Gin gives it a try because she is so tired of fighting off all the local yokels who are trying to kill her so that they can make a name for themselves in the Ashland underworld. Here, Gin explains: "I was getting a little sick of the constant, not-so-surprise attacks and blood spatters on my hands, clothes, and shoes, but the stream of suicidal lowlifes showed no signs of slowing down anytime soon." (p. 4) Soon, Gin and Bria head off to a beach resort in Blue Marsh, the town in which Bria spent her childhood, with Finn and Owen scheduled to join them there a day or so later. We can all guess how well this goes—not!

     The first thing that Bria wants to do is meet up with her best friend, Callie, who owns a seafood restaurant that has been in her family for generations. During their visit to the restaurant, two thugsa giant and a humancome in and begin to wreck the place, threatening Callie with further violence if she won't sell her land to their boss, Randall Dekes, a rich and powerful vampire who has made his money through threats, coercion, and murder. Gin, of course, doesn't just stand there and watch the thugs do their thing; she beats them both up and Callie calls the local cops. Surprise, surprise! The first cop on the scene is Callie's fiancé, and his name is...(drum roll, please)...Donovan Caine. Yes, Gin's former lover (and a total bonehead back in books 1 & 2) has moved to Blue Marsh. When he finds out what happened, he gets all self-righteous with Gin (just like old times), castigating her for her actions and demanding that she leave Callie alonethat he'll fix things the legal way. So...still a big jerk. When Dekes kidnaps Callie, however, Donovan changes his tune and goes to Gin for help. The story follows Gin as she and her crew plot a way to take out Dekes, a plan that at first backfires and results in some serious injuries for Gin. But we all know that Gin never gives up, and the ending is an action-filled victory.

     The secondary story line has to do with the uneasy relationship between Gin and Bria. They have only had a few months of sisterhood time, and Gin realizes that Bria sees her the same way that Donovan does—as a murderous assassin who lives on the wrong side of the law and regularly uses violence to solve problems. While most of that assessment is true, Gin has pretty much stopped taking murder-for-hire jobs and has been concentrating on pro bono work—solving problems for people who can't get the justice system to work for them. So by Gin's standards, she is living a moral and ethical life. Unfortunately, it seems that the sanctimonious Bria can't accept that. The one person who accepts Gin unconditionally is Owen, and she knows that and loves him for it. In the Donovan Caine situation, Gin must work through her feelings about Donovan and deal with him and his attitude, which she does in a very satisfying manner at the very end of the book.

     This is another great addition to the series, with lots of action and emotion in an entirely new setting. Estep excels at creating main and supporting characters who are complex enough to maintain the reader's interest and empathy without bogging down the plot line with extraneous details. This is mostly an angst-free book, with just a few scenes in which Gin muses about her relationships with Bria and Donovan. The difference between Gin's interior monologues and those in lesser series is that Gin takes action after she thinks through a situation. She doesn't worry incessantly about the same problems without doing something about them, and that's what makes her a great heroine.

                   NOVEL 7:  Widow's Web                      

     Well, we knew this was coming eventually. Gin's loving relationship with Owen has been moving along without a hitch in the past few books, but it's a well-known fact that no road to love is without its bumps, and this book is where it gets really rocky for Gin and Owen. The source of the problem is that old tried-and-true favorite—the ex-fiancée who shows up and wants her lover back. The former flame in this case is Salina Dubois, a gorgeous woman who is a powerful water elemental with a mean streak that rivals Cruella di Vil, and Owen is too blinded by love—or the memory of love—to realize that Salina is up to all kinds of no good. 

     The action begins when one of Ashland's top crime bosses, Phillip Kincaid, asks Gin to cater an affair to be held on his riverboat gambling casino. When Kincaid's top lieutenant is murdered at the gathering by a water elemental (guess who?), Gin realizes that she has been dragged into a situation that is certain to end badly for everyone involved, including herself. Within just a few chapters, two people beg Gin to kill Salina, and by the end of the story, just about everyone in town wants Salina gone—terminally gone. Everyone, that is, but Owen, who continues to believe that he can help her. In a series of flashbacks, we get the full backstory for Owen, Eva, Kincaid, and Salina, all of whom have known each other for many years—which is (unwelcome) news to Gin.   

     This is basically a relationship story held together by a slender plot. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because it's nice to get Owen's personal history, but I have to say that a more complex plot would have made this a stronger book. Still, Gin is such a strong character that she breathes life into the thinnest of plots.

                   NOVEL 8:  Deadly Sting                      
     In this book, Gin takes on all of the attributes of Bruce Willis' John McClane character in the Die Hard movies. (I kept waiting for her to yell, "Yippee-ki-yay, motherf#!%er!"—which, by the way, is number 96 on Premiere's 100 Greatest Movie Lines.) In this book, Gin is a one-woman dynamo, taking out the bad guys all by herself (mostly) and out-thinking them at every turn. If what you're looking for is blood-and-guts action, then this is the book for you. But if you're expecting plot complexity and the ensemble teamwork of the earlier novels in the series, you'll be disappointed. That's not to say that this is a badly written book by any means. It's just that by this point in the series we expect more.

     The thin plot revolves around a high-society party that turns into a museum heist perpetrated by a gang of giants who hold all of Ashland's power brokers (both good and bad) hostage while they gather up all the bling on the scene. Along with the jewels worn by the party guests, the giants grab up the ill-gotten objets d'art from Mab Monroe's estate—paintings, jewelry, and sculpture that are currently being displayed at the museum. Fortunately for the good guys, Gin is not in the room when the giants lock all the doors and surround the hostages. Because the museum is on an island, and because the giants have jammed the cell-phone frequencies, Gin is the only one who can defeat the giants and rescue the hostages. The plot, then, follows Gin as she methodically takes down the bad guys, one by bloody one.

     There is a side plot—a romantic, but melancholy, one—that involves Owen Grayson, Gin's estranged lover, who turned his back on her after she murdered his crazed ex-fiancée right before his eyes (in the previous book). The fact that the woman was a psychotic serial killer who was trying to murder Gin doesn't stop Owen from grieving over her death and wondering whether he could have saved her from herself if Gin hadn't dispatched her. Owen happens to be at the museum gathering, and the giants pull him out of the crowd so that he can help them with his metal magic. This makes Gin even more determined to decimate the bad guys because she still loves Owen and keeps hoping that he will forgive her and take her back. (Considering that the fiancée's murder was absolutely necessary and completely unavoidable, I'm having a tough time sympathizing with Owen on his unyielding and unfair judgment of Gin.) During the party, Gin and Owen have several awkward conversations that are made even more uncomfortable by the fact that Owen has brought a date to the party, a woman who not only looks just like Gin but is wearing an identical dress (a combination that soon results in some very bad karma for the poor woman). Later in the evening, Gin and Owen share one passionate kiss, but they never really resolve their romantic situation. 

     The slender story lines in this book and the previous book have me worried about the future of the series. In the first novels, there was a strong series story arc that centered around Gin's determination to discover the identity of her mother's killer and then to get revenge. Now that Mab is gone, Gin is no longer driven by this, or any other, ongoing passion. She spends most of her time cooking in her restaurant and defending herself against wannabe hotshots who want to win the fast-growing pot of money that will go to the lucky thug who kills her. We can only hope that the next book contains some type of jolt that will get Gin's life revved up to a more passionate level. And here's a brief, heartfelt message to Owen: "Get over it, dude, and accept the reality of your own bad choices."

                      NOVELLA 8.5: "Kiss of Venom"                      

     The story is told in the first-person voice by Owen Grayson, Gin's estranged lover. At this point, Owen has finally realized how badly he has behaved toward Gin, toward his friend Phillip Kincaid, and toward others in his life. When Owen took the side of Salina, his ex-wife, in Widow's Web and believed all her lies, he hurt many people. Then, in Deadly Sting, when he continued to turn his back on Gin, even though she killed Salina in self-defense (thus saving him from having to do the dreadful task himself), he broke Gin's heart. At the beginning of their relationship, Owen promised himself that he would never hurt Gin like her former lover (Donovan Caine) did, but he broke that promise, and now he is wracked with guilt, fearing that Gin will never give him a second chance: "I loved Gin, but I'd known that she had some serious trust issues after Detective Donovan Caine had so coldly rejected her for being an assassin....I had vowed to myself that I would never treat her as thoughtlessly as Donovan had. I would never judge or reject her for doing what she thought was right, for using her skills as the Spider to protect others. But I'd done it all anyway. I loved Gin, but I'd still hurt her, and I didn't know if I could ever forgive myself for that." (chapter 3)

     The plot follows Owen and Phillip (with whom he has just reconciled) as they spend an evening at a vampire club and intercept a group of assassins who are out to kill Gin—all without Gin ever knowing what's going on.  

                      NOVEL 9:  Heart of Venom                      

     Sophia and Jolene ("Jo-Jo") Deveraux, dwarven sisters who are Gin's close friends, have been supporting characters throughout the series, and in this book we get their tragic back story. Early in the book (chapter 2), a psychotic giant fire elemental bursts into Jo-Jo's salon with Hazel, his equally crazy and equally dangerous sister and a gang of thugs. This is Harley Grimes, an all-around bad guy who routinely kidnaps young girls from the streets of Ashland and drags them off to his mountaintop compound where he tortures and kills them. Ten years ago, he kidnapped Sophia, but Jo-Jo hired Gin's late mentor, Fletcher Lane, to rescue her. Since that time, Grimes has stayed away, fearing Fletcher's wrathful retribution, but now that Fletcher is dead, Grimes is back to recapture Sophia. He is basically a stalker who is fixated on Sophia because she is the only one of his victims who didn't give up or beg for mercy. When Jo-Jo tries to stop Grimes, he shoots her and makes off with Sophia, leaving Gin and Bria to take out his remaining men and find a way to save Jo-Jo's life.

     Gin vows to kill Grimes and Hazel and as many of his men as she can. Here, she explains her mission: "I plan on carving up Harley Grimes like a Thanksgiving turkey and leaving pieces of him all over the mountain for the buzzards to find." (p. 81) When Gin starts off alone, I assumed that this would be a replay of her lone heroic escapades of the previous book, but—Surprise!—Owen Grayson (Gin's off-again lover) shows up to accompany her, and the two finally get their relationship back on track (although not immediately).

     The story follows Gin, Owen, and Warren T. Fox (a store owner who has played a supporting role in previous books) as they head for Grimes' camp and form their strategy. Eventually Gin is left alone to face Grimes and his men while Owen spirits the injured Sophia and Warren off the mountain to safety.

     This book has some of the darkest, most sickening scenes that I've read in this series (or any series, really). Grimes and Hazel are truly and deeply crazy, and their torture of Sophia is almost too painful and stomach-churning to read. "The searing heat from the elemental Fire. The foul, rotten stench from the swollen, bloated bodies. The acrid aroma of burned flesh. The bugs humming through the air, hungry for whatever blood and bones they could find. Hazel preening. The men jeering. Grimes grinning. And Sophia in the middle of it all, dressed up like a pretty, if stained, porcelain doll, as though she should be having tea in some summer garden instead of digging a mass grave." (p. 158) Never fear, though, Gin gets her revenge, and those scenes are also very, very dark. In fact, this book includes three characters with hearts of venom: Grimes, Hazel...and Gin. 

     The ending includes a cliffhanger related to the mysterious M. M. Monroe who has inherited Mab Monroe's estate but has not yet been identified. From the clues provided in this story, it looks as if M. M. has some violent plans in mind for Ashland.

     With its simple, straightforward plot, its profusion of blood-and-guts scenes, and its Gin-against-the-world theme, this book comes across as weaker than the earlier books in the series—the ones that had complex plots and rich character development. This is the ninth book in the series, and it's common for the later books in long series to become repetitive and, therefore, less interesting. I'm hoping that Estep will step up the drama and suspense when the enigmatic M. M. finally shows his (or her) face in Ashland. Let the action begin!  

                      NOVEL 10:  The Spider                      

     Although this novel is being billed as an origin story, it's not a prologue, or even chapter one, of Gin Blanco's life. No, it's more of a coming-of-age tale. As the story begins, Gin and her lover, Owen Grayson, are sitting in her restaurant, the Pork Pit, when a deliveryman brings Gin a box containing a dozen blue-black roses accompanied by a card that says only two words: "Happy Anniversary." Naturally, Owen is intrigued, so Gin tells him the story of one of her first assassin jobsa heartbreaking tale that took place a decade ago.

     The target is a local construction magnate named Cesar Vaughn, and the person who hires Fletcher and Gin is anonymous. Although Fletcher has some misgivings about the job, Gin pressures him into going ahead with it when she learns that Vaughn has ties to the ruthless fire elemental and mobster, Mab Monroe, and that he has been abusing his teen-age daughter, Charlotte. Needless to say, the job goes terribly wrong in any number of ways, and by the end, Gin is left with the hard heart and walled emotions that we met way back in book 1, and which she managed to maintain until she met and fell in love with Owen. As this book opens, Gin is well-trained and confidentready and raring to go out on her own. But...she is also inexperienced, impatient, cocky, and emotionally needy, and those traits tip the scales against her more than once as the plot twists and turns its way to its climactic resolution. During this adventure, Gin learns (the hard way) that she must curb her arrogance, harden her heart, and hone her elemental skills. In this book, we see her truly transform into her alter ego, the Spider.

     The best parts of the book are the quick glimpses of characters who will later become important parts of Gin's life, although she doesn't know it at the timepeople like Xavier, Bria, and even Owen. We are also reminded of just how much weaker Gin was back in the beginning when she had only average stone powers and hardly any ice powers at all. The weakness of the book is its repetition of events that have been described in detail in many of the previous books. The book could be read as a stand-alone for a new reader of the series, but it's probably more fun for a fan who wants to take a look at Gin's first meetings with some of the series regulars.

     Click HERE to go to a page on Estep's web site that contains links to two excerpts from The Spider: chapter 1 (print) and chapter 2 (audio).

                      NOVEL 11:  Poison Promise                      

     The most shocking thing for me about this novel is Gin Blanco's statement on page 3 that only a single year has passed since her mentor, Fletcher Lane, died. It's hard to believe that all of the adventures in the previous 10 books took place over a period of just 12 months! 

     As the novel opens, Gin is about to turn 31 years old, and she's trying to keep her foster brother, Finn, from throwing her yet another "surprise" party. Although Gin's life has been relatively calm in recent days, she is still having to kill the occasional hit man trying to make a name for himself by taking down the Spider. Then, one night she saves the life of Catalina Vasquez, one of her waitresses, who is being threatened by a local drug dealer and his two vampire thugs. That event is the catalyst that sets off a chain reaction of events that pulls Gin into a confrontation with Beauregard Benson, the powerful vampire who rules Ashland's drug trade.

     Along with his vampire powersstrength and speedBenson can also feed on and take strength from the emotions and life force of his victims, killing them quickly and leaving behind just the dried-up husk of their bodies. He also has air elemental powers that give him precognition abilities. With all of those talents, Benson is a horrific villain and one of the most formidable enemies Gin has ever faced. He dresses mostly in white with pale blue accessories and is chauffeured around town in his distinctive, baby-blue Bentley. Benson looks like a harmless, geeky nerd, with a plastic pocket protector full of pens and notebooks and a pair of silver eyeglasses perched on his long, pale nose. He fancies himself a scientist and even has a laboratory, but what he does there is more like torture than scientific experimentationas Gin finds out the hard way.

     Early in the story, Gin sees Benson in action when he takes revenge on the drug dealer Gin vanquished when she saved Catalina. The drug dealer follows Catalina into a parking garage, where Gin shows up to save her. Then, Benson and his vamps arrive, and Gin and Catalina hide to watch what happens. Benson simply runs his fingers down the drug dealer's cheek, and Gin watches the victim "deflate, like a cake that was caving in on itself. His beefy body grew thinner and thinner, his skin and cheekbones sinking in on themselves, as though he were the victim of some sort of sudden, extreme starvation. His dirty-blond hair fell out in clumps and his breath came in a gasping, choking death rattle…." (p. 58) As he sucks out the man's life, Benson "seemed to grow and grow, his chest expanding, his body lengthening, his arms and legs bulging…" (p. 59) 

     Along with the conflict involving Benson, Gin finds herself in a major clash with her sister, Bria. Benson killed one of Bria's teenage informants in the same way he did the drug dealer, and Bria is beside herself with rage at Bensondetermined to take him down, no matter what the cost. Bria has worked herself up into a frenzy, allowing her emotions to cloud her judgment, and she strikes out at Gin for not taking Benson down when she had a chance. The rest of the story plays out as Benson and Gin go up against one another in a struggle to the death. 

     Bria's hysterics and her raw, emotional rants against Gin were, for me, the last straw as far as Bria is concerned. Bria has made no secret of her contempt for Gin's assassin career and has shown a complete lack of empathy towards Gin ever since the two found each other back in books 3 and 4. Bria's disgraceful behavior regarding Catalina's safety and her judgmental tirades against Gin are unforgivable, even though she does eventually redeem herself. I have never liked Bria as a character, and this book does nothing to change my opinion of her.

     Meanwhile, two mysterious women keep appearing on the edges of the action: a beautiful redhead and her giant bodyguard. By the end of the book, Gin learns the true identity of the two strangers (one of whom is the woman Gin saw at Mab Monroe's funeral). She also learns that the women, along with one of Gin's long-time enemies, have formed a triumvirate that plans to take over Ashland, preferably over Gin's dead body. Although Gin does gain a new ally near the end of the story, she is not sure that her team is powerful enough to win out against this new enemy.

     This is a great bookfull of suspense, drama, and plenty of action. Gin finally steps up to fully claim her Spider identity for all of Ashland to see, but then she finds that she will have to fight harder than ever to keep herself and her friends alive in the face of this new danger. Even though we are deep into the series, Estep has managed to create a story with an inventive premise that includes a terrific stand-off scene and an abundance of emotional anguish. In addition, she has added an all-new dimension to the series story arc. I do have a niggle of worry that we might be getting Mab Monroe 2.0, but I have faith that Estep will take things in an entirely fresh direction (even though I have no idea how she will be able to do that). This has been, and continues to be, one of my favorite urban fantasy series, and this book just adds to its strength. 

     Click HERE to read an excerpt from Poison Promise. Just scroll down a bit and click on the "READ EXCERPT" icon.   

                      NOVEL 12:  Black Widow                      

     In the past few months, Gin has killed Mab Monroe, the evil fire elemental who ruled Ashland's underworld, and has fended off a non-stop stream of thuggish wannabes who want to kill Gin to build enough street cred to take over Mab's vacant position. Now it's time for yet another smackdown. Mab's daughter, Madeline Magda Monroe, has come to town to claim her inheritance, accompanied by her giant bodyguard, Emery Slater. As Gin follows Madeline from one civic event to the next, she is certain that her own death is a bullet item in Madeline's strategic plan. Also on board with Madeline is Mab's sleazy lawyer, Jonah McAllister. Madeline's two allies have their own personal grudges against Gin because she has killed both Jonah's son and Emery's uncle, Elliot Slater, who had been Mab's number one enforcer.

     As the book begins, Madeline has been in town for a month or so and has proved to be secretive and sly, just the opposite of her mother, who was openly and violently hostile towards Gin. Madeline has spent most of her time cozying up to top government bigwigs, police department officials, and cultural leaders, doing as many favors as she can to ensure their good will and cooperation. Gin keeps spying on Madeline, but so far hasn't been able to come up with any hard evidence as to what Madeline is planning. Gin's friends keep telling her that she is just being paranoid, but Gin is absolutely certain that Madeline is up to no good.

     During the first half of the book, we watch what happens as Madeline goes after Gin's friends and family, one right after another. Even Owen's teenage daughter, Eva, doesn't escape Madeline's wrath. All of the bad things that happen to them are done in a seemingly upstanding and legal manner, but all are based on manufactured legalities. For example, Finn is accused of negligence with bank funds, based on altered records. Eva is accused of selling test answers, based on false testimony. Owen is on the verge of losing a big business deal because his prospective client is being bought off. Jo-Jo Deveraux's beauty salon is closed down by the health department, as is the Pork Pit. Bria is suspended from the police force, accused of possessing drugs that were planted in her desk. And so on. Then, when Madeline is sure that Gin's support system is as shaky as possible, she buys off the police chief and goes after Ginbig time! By the time Madeline and her cronies are through with Gin, she has been accused of murder, charged with assaulting a police officer, jailed, and forced to fight for her life. Worst of all, she must endure the fiery destruction of the Pork Pit as itliterallyburns down around her.

     The second half of the book follows Gin as she plans and carries out her revenge against Madeline. I don't want to provide very many plot details because the suspense involved in watching this story play out is so enjoyable. Let's just say that when Gin goes after someone, she usually accomplishes what she sets out to do, even though there may be some extremely rough patches along the way. 

     An interesting, emotional twist occurs at the very end of the story when a surprise character turns up, although that character's identity is easily predicted long before we actually meet the person. What makes this scene interesting is that it forces Gin to view Mab's long-ago actions toward her and her sister in a new light, as she imagines herself in Mab's place and thinks about what her own next steps will be.

     Gin's character has been growing in maturity and self-awareness all through the series, especially in the last two or three books. At this point, she recognizes that she is just as dark and violent as any of her enemies, and she has made a certain amount of peace with that. At one point, she looks at Madeline and makes a comparison: "Even I could admit that she was the picture of beauty on the outsideand completely black, brittle, and rotten on the inside. Just like me." Of course, Gin's friends and family (except, perhaps, Bria) would disagree with Gin's assessment of herself because Gin doesn't kill people to attain power or money for herself. She kills people because they are criminals who victimize innocents and who operate outside of Ashland's corrupt justice system. She is like Green Arrow or any other member of the Justice League, striking out against evil in the absence an effective police force and/or legal system. 

     This is another strong addition to a terrific series, one that eliminates one more powerful villain from Ashland and creates another power vacuum that must be filled by someone. More bad guys and gals are waiting in the wings ready to pounce on Gin, so she still can't get relax and enjoy life with Owen and the rest of her friends. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Black Widow. Just scroll down a bit and click on the "READ EXCERPT" icon. 

                     NOVEL 13:  Spider's Trap                      
     One important lesson I’ve learned in the assassination business is that to be the best you have to roll with the punches. Now that I’m queen of Ashland’s underworld—by default, not by choice—a lot more punches are being thrown my way. But I suppose that’s the price of victory for taking down some of the underworld’s top dogs. Good thing I have my Ice and Stone magic to help me survive my volatile new position. Just when I think things are finally settling down, someone tries to murder me during a hush-hush underworld meeting. But the real surprise is how strangely familiar my shadowy assailant seems to be. 

     My job is to maintain order among killers, crooks, and thieves, and soon I’m embroiled in a bloody game where the ability to keep secrets could be the greatest superpower of all. My enemies have all sharpened their knives and laid their traps, waiting for me to fall. But this Spider weaves her own webs of death. 

     I couldn't suppress a groan when I read these words in Gin's narrative in the early pages of Spider's Trap"Strangely enough, the gesture reminded me of…something." And then, a few chapters later: "It all reminded me of…something…some vague wisp of memory I couldn't quite bring into focus." Say it isn't so, Ms. Estep! I can't believe that you fell back on the dreaded "I know this is important, but I just can't remember why" trope throughout the first 11 chapters of this book. And to make matters worse, when Gin does remember, it is in a dream that stretches (in bits and pieces) over more chapters. How could such a talented writer would resort to this manipulative and worn-out plot device?

     Unfortunately, Gin's just-can't-remember issue isn't the only weakness. This story runs on autopilot from beginning to end. Ginnow the reluctant leader of Ashland's underworldmakes one bad decision after another, always ending up badly wounded after engaging in battles with a psychopathic elemental whose powers are much stronger than hers. Despite her years of fighting against all sorts of elementals, she makes the TSTL mistake of bringing her silverstone knives to a fight with a metal elementala mistake that ends quite badly for her. After each fight, her allies (Owen, Finn, and Bria) come storming in to scold her for going off alone. Then, Jo-Jo shows up to heal Gin's wounds, and Sophia steps in to get rid of the bodies. And...Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Also, let's not forget the endless descriptions of the food the characters eat between battles—all prepared, of course, by Gin. With its relatively straightforward plot line, this novel couldand shouldhave been shortened to a novella by consolidating the dream flashbacks and eliminating or conflating one or two of the metal vs. ice/stone elemental battles. 

     In earlier books, Estep gave us some character development, but in this novel, Gin's allies serve as mere props who generally show up after the fact to mill around and mutter reproachful commentary. Although Owen accompanies Gin into battle in one scene (without her consent), he is a flat, one-dimensional character in this story.

     The story line centers on an evil metal elemental who, in the very first scene, places a bomb on Phillip Kincaid's riverboat in the midst of a meeting Gin is holding with some local crime lords. From that point on, Gin tries to figure out the who-why-how of the situation, all the while trying to remember why this all seems so familiar. Although the final chapters are more successful than the earlier ones, this plot just doesn't have the spark or the inventiveness of earlier novels in this series. This is the thirteenth novel, and although I hate to say it, perhaps it is time to give Gin and Owen (and Finn and Bria) their HEAs and bring this series to an end. From the beginning, this has been one of my favorite urban fantasy series, and I'd like to see it end at the top of its game.

     The only complexity in this book is the spider's trap imagery, which is developed on several levels. The literal spider's trap is the one that Gin (aka the Spider) sets to catch the villain. The metaphorical trap is the one that Gin constantly sets for herself. Late in the story, Owen chides her about this: "Somebody spins you a sob story, and you go rushing off all by your lonesome to help them…It's your own little spider's trap that you fall into every single time." In this case, the "somebody" with the sob story is one of Ashland's crime bosses, and Gin allows herself to be drawn into the drama even when that person explicitly warns her off. 

     In this book and in the next one, Gin gets major clues from her late mentor, Fletcher Lane. "Once again the old man had left me with clue to find from beyond his own grave," In the next book (Bitter Bite), Gin finds a clue that Fletcher tucked into a long-buried coffin, a clue that concerns a threat to Finn by a mysterious person from his past. This person also plays a vital behind-the-scenes role in Spider's Trap by providing vital information about Gin to the book's primary villain.

     I recommend that you read this book in the context of the seriesnot as a stand-alone. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Spider's Trap. Just scroll down a bit and click on the "READ EXCERPT" icon.

                      NOVEL 14:  Bitter Bite                      

     Which is stronger: blood ties or a battle-tested friendship? That’s the question Gin Blanco asks when a friend’s long-lost relative strolls into town. The suspicious reunion is a surprise for everyone—and a big problem for Gin. 

     It’s not easy being queen bee of an underworld abuzz with crooks and killers. Wielding my potent Ice and Stone elemental magic will only get me so far—my real secret is my tight-knit makeshift family, a motley crew of cops and criminals, dwarves and playboys. My foster brother Finnegan Lane is my right-hand man, but when his suddenly not-dead relative comes back into the picture, I’m the one on the outside looking in. 

     It’s funny how life works: one minute your best friend is rock-steady, and the next he’s doe-eyed and buying into this whole loving-relative routine to the point of ignoring you. I’d like to be happy for Finn, I really would. But all of my instincts are telling me that beneath the syrupy sweet demeanor and old-fashioned charm, this sudden interloper is planning something. The whole shtick leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. This person might have avoided the grave once, but I’ll put anyone who hurts Finn in the ground—for good. 

     Ever since Fletcher Lane rescued Gin back in her early teenage years, she and Fletcher's son, Finnegan (Finn) have been inseparable friends, always there for each other, always watching one another's back. In this book, a calculating, dangerous woman nearly destroys their brother-sister relationship. 

     At the end of Spider's Trap, Gin found a hidden file in Fletcher's deska file containing notes and documents about Finn's long-dead mother, Deirdre Shaw, a powerful ice elemental. In that file, Fletcher claimed that "Deirdre was powerful, deceitful, and treacherousand not nearly as dead as everyone thought she was," and that if Deirdre has come back to Ashland, she poses a serious threat to both Finn and Gin. You will recall that Deirdre played a vital behind-the-scenes role in Spider's Trap by providing vital information about Gin and her friends to that book's primary villain. 

     Fletcher had always told Finn and Gin (and everyone else in Ashland) that Deirdre died in a car crash. In fact, Deirdre even has a grave and a headstone in the local cemetery. But when Gin digs up that grave, she finds a pristine coffin containing only one thingnot a body, but a silverstone box filled with old photographs from Finn's infancy and two sealed letters from Fletcherone for Gin and one for Finn.  Fletcher provides the source of the title of this book in his note to Gin: "How the bitter bite of her betrayal almost destroyed me." In that note, Fletcher tells Gin to "Watch out for Finn. He'll need you after everything is over and Deirdre has done whatever foul, manipulative thing she's planning."

     After Gin has some time to digest all of this new and unsettling information, she decides to reveal the truth to Finn, buttoo late! Fletcher's mother has insinuated herself into his life as a new client, and just before Gin plans to reveal her secret, Deirdre confesses her true identity to Finn, begging his forgiveness for leaving him behind and concocting a horrific nest of lies to justify her actionslies that portray Fletcher as the bad guy in their situation. Unfortunately, Finn is so starved for motherly affection that he believes all of Deirdre's lies, so when Gin tries to get him to see reason, he angrily turns his back on her.

     The plot is fairly straightforward: Gin has to figure out exactly why Deirdre has returned to Ashland, what she wants from Finn, and how to stop her. No pressure! As Gin puts Deirdre under personal surveillance, Finn allows himself to be pulled deeper and deeper into the false "Mommy web" that Deirdre is spinning. Unfortunately, Gin's temper frequently gets the best of her and she makes some damningly violent statements to Deirdre (in front of Finn), so the Gin-Finn relationship gets darker and more fragile as the story progresses. Their situation is a parallel to the Owen-Gin plot line in Widow's Web in which Owen refuses to believe that Gin is right about his ex-fiancée being a dangerous criminal. Ironically, Owen cites his own sad experience as he tries to talk Finn into listening to Gin's advice about his mother, but Finn just gets even angrier and calls Owen a hypocrite. That similarity to the plot in Widow's Web is a weakness in this book because it frequently makes the story feel repetitivea replay of that earlier story line with just a shift in characters. Another plot replay involves a high-society robbery that is all too reminiscent of the museum heist in Deadly Sting

     The book ends with the resolution of Deirdre's story line, but with a cliff-hanger involving new and shocking revelations about the true connections between Gin's mother and Mab Monroe and the existence of a shadowy group that exists behind the scenes of the Ashland underworld. The whole idea of an extremely powerful, never-before-heard-from crime group seems implausible to me because there has never been a hint of anything like that throughout the previous 13 novels. I have a hard time believing that the group could exert so much power when Gin and her allies have no knowledge of its existence. I'm afraid that the series has gone on so long that Estep is running out of plot, so she has to reshape old plots and manufacture elements that were never part of her initial series plans. In my opinion, it's better to end a series at its height than to string it along by reshaping old plots and adding far-fetched elements.

     Even with the weaknesses I have mentioned, this book is much stronger that Spider's Trap, the previous novel. This time around, Estep is back in top storytelling form with a suspenseful, fast-paced plot filled with lots of deeply felt emotion and centered around an interesting villain. Deirdre is definitely much smarter that Gin's usual opponents, and she seems able to predict Gin's every move, so Gin finds herself in several serious predicaments that could end very badly if it weren't for her strong support team: Bria, Owen, Sophie, Jo-Jo, and Gin's personal vampire assistant, the tech-savvy Silvio Sanchez (a very entertaining character).

     I recommend that you read this book in the context of the seriesnot as a stand-alone. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Bitter Bite on its page by clicking either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

NOVELLA 14.5:  "Unwanted"                      

     The New York Times best-selling ELEMENTAL ASSASSIN series continues with a new e-novella—from the point of view of Finnegan Lane, the foster brother of Gin Blanco, and a fan favorite of readers of the series.

     The fallout from his disastrous “family reunion” in Bitter Bite has left Finn feeling hurt, angry, and depressed. He can barely stand to look at himself in the mirror, much less eat any of the delicious barbecue from Gin’s famed Pork Pit restaurant.

     But when the funeral for a slain security guard at his bank turns into a showdown with some nasty underworld giants, Finn knows that he must act in order to protect an innocent family. Finnegan Lane might be the most unwanted man in Ashland these days, but he’s determined to try to make amends for his past mistakes.

     As we look forward to the August publication of the 15th novel, Unraveled, Estep tides us over with a novella that gives Finn a chance to begin rebuilding his reputation in Ashland, particularly with the bank employees who had been his friends before his mother manipulated him into unwittingly setting up her disastrous attack on the bank. All of his friends turned their backs on him after his arrogant actions caused the deaths of several bank guards. Now, he spends every day shut inside his basement office feeling like a "sad, stupid, gullible fool."

     The widow of one of those murdered guards is being threatened by a local bookie—a giant who uses his huge, gaudy gold rings like brass knuckles to beat up those unlucky enough to be in his debt. When Finn discovers that the widow stands to lose her home—and her health—at the hands of this bully, he decides that it's time to take a stand. After the horrific trauma that ended Bitter Bite, it's painful, but somehow satisfying, to watch the formerly confident, happy-go-lucky Finn find a way to live with his terrible mistakes and to begin to make peace with the survivors of his mother's dastardly deeds. 

     This is a nice fill-in-the-gap story that gives Estep a chance to put Finn back on his feet—emotionally speaking—so that she can dive right into the action in the upcoming Unraveled, which will deal with the shocking new information Gin learned in Bitter Bite about Ashland's underworld and her late mother's connections with it.  

     This novella works best if it is read in the context of previous books in the series because it deals directly with the aftermath of events that took place in Bitter Bite. Click HERE to read an excerpt from "Unwanted" on its page by clicking on the cover art. Currently, the price of this 74-page novella on is only $1.99, a bargain price for a story that lets us look deep into the heart and soul of a character that we usually view only from the outside.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of "Unwanted" is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.

                      NOVEL 15:  Unraveled                      

     After the shocking revelations of the previous book, Bitter Bite, the world of Ashland’s magical underworld becomes even more sinister, and Gin Blanco (aka Ashland’s most fearsome assassin, the Spider) no longer knows who—or what—she can count on. Only one thing is for certain: danger and new enemies await Gin in Unraveled.

   What could go wrong when you’re trying to unravel a decades-old conspiracy? As the current queen of the Ashland underworld, you would think that I, Gin Blanco, would know all about some secret society controlling things from behind the scenes. I might be the Spider, the city’s most fearsome assassin, but all my Ice and Stone elemental magic hasn’t done me a lick of good in learning more about “the Circle.” Despite my continued investigations, the trail’s gone as cold as the coming winter. 

    So when Finnegan Lane, my foster brother, gets word of a surprising inheritance, we figure why not skip town for someplace less dangerous for a few days? That place: Bullet Pointe, a fancy hotel resort complex plus Old West theme park that Finn now owns lock, stock, and barrel. At first, all the struttin’ cowboys and sassy saloon girls are just hokey fun. But add in some shady coincidences and Circle assassins lurking all around, and vacationing becomes wilder—and deadlier—than any of us expected. Good thing this assassin brought plenty of knives to the gunfight. 

WARNING: This review has spoilers for Bitter Bite

     This plot reminded me of the inevitable "costume" plots that every TV detective show turns to at one time or another (e.g., "Double Trouble in the Panhandle" on Bones"Blue Butterfly" on Castle). It gives the heroine an opportunity to dress up in a sexy outfit and still outwit the bad guys. In this novel it's Gin's turn as she dons a blood-red satin dress and a blond wig and becomes Sassy Scarlet, the saloon girl.

     Ever since Gin learned that her late mother was part of a mysterious crime organization known as the Circle, she has been digging for more information. All she knows is what the evil vampire, Hugh Tucker, told her in Bitter Bite: that Gin's position as head of Ashland's underworld is a sham because the powerful movers and shakers who make up the Circle are the ones who are really running the show. Gin is shocked that her beloved mother could have been part of such a group, and she is determined to uncover every last detail available. 

     Meanwhile, Gin's foster brother, Finn, has received word that his evil mother, Deirdre, left him an inheritance: a sprawling amusement part in northern Georgia just south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Finn proposes that he and Gin along with their romantic partners, Bria and Owen, take a trip to Bullet Pointe to meet the staff and enjoy a brief vacation from the trials and tribulations of Ashland. Now, as soon as you see the word "vacation," you know that this trip will be anything but relaxing. (Do you remember Gin's last vacation, a murder-filled weekend in Blue Marsh in By a Thread?) 

     It is at this point that the plot gets a bit predictable. First, the deed arrives unexpectedly in the mail just two weeks after Deirdre's death, not nearly long enough for it to have gone through the probate process. Plus, Deirdre was never fond of Finnnot in any way. In fact, she threatened to kill him with her elemental magic when he was an infant if Fletcher didn't allow her to leave Ashland for good. So why would she leave him this huge resort? And how did the paperwork get processed so fast? Then, when the quartet arrives at Bullet Pointe, they find a suspicious woman running the placea sharpshooter who coats her bullets with fire magic and who had a confrontation with Gin just days before when she attempted to murder Gin's nemesis, Jonah McAllister. Then, Gin glimpses Hugh Tucker in the crowd. From that point on, the plot line leads straight into a series of confrontations and then to a major showdown. Throw in a million-dollar treasure trove of jewels and a crusty old caretaker, and you've got yourself a story.

     As soon as Gin steps out of the car at Bullet Pointe, she feels someone watching her and realizes that this trip was probably not a good ideaand she's right about that. As Gin and her friends begin to investigate, things unravel quickly, leaving Gin all alone (as usual) to rescue her friends and save the day. The event that leads to the unraveling is both improbable and predictable because when our suspicious heroine uncharacteristically drops her guard around her suspected villain, you know immediately that something really bad is going to happen to the good guys. (And that's all I can say without inserting a spoiler.) From that point on, the most entertaining parts of the story occur as Gin "MacGyvers" her way through the theme park setting improvised traps for her pursuers. 

     This novel continues the story arc that began in Bitter Bite: the search for the members of the Circle and Gin's investigation into her mother's role in that group. But through 99 per cent of the book, the only Circle member she finds is Hugh Tucker, and she already knew about him. At the very end, Estep inserts a tease for the next novel (Snared, due in January 2017), and she also includes an excerpt from that book to keep your interest alive.

     This isn't one of my favorites in this series, mostly because the bad guys are so under-developed and one-dimensional and because there is a minimum of interaction between Gin and her friends. Mostly, it's just Gin being Gin, which is entertaining, but we've seen it before...many, many times. If you are a die-hard fan of the series, you'll enjoy watching Gin take out more bad guys than usual (mostly giants), but you'll miss the suspense, drama, and rich emotional depth of Poison Promise and Bitter Bite. 

     Click HERE read or listen to an excerpt from Uraveled on the novel's Amazon.como page by clicking either on the "Listen" icon for audio or on the cover art for print.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Unraveled is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.

                      NOVELLA 15.5:  "Nice Guys Bite"                      

     New York Times bestseller Jennifer Estep continues her ELEMENTAL ASSASSIN urban fantasy series with a novella starring Silvio Sanchez, the vampire assistant of Gin Blanco, as he goes on a holiday date that turns out to be more deadly than romantic.

     Working for Gin Blanco (aka the Spider, the assassin who runs the Ashland underworld) doesn’t leave much time for romance, especially with Gin’s holiday party planning in full swing. But when he catches the eye of a charming gentleman, Silvio finds himself going out for coffee.

     All’s fair in love and war, though. Just as Silvio is starting to enjoy himself, he realizes he’s being watched. His nice guy date doesn’t sense the danger, and Silvio wants to keep it that way (and, well, keep the guy alive) so Silvio ends the date early—only to be abducted by some villainous giants. 

     Will Silvio survive the night and make it back to the Pork Pit in time for Gin’s holiday party? Only if he decks the hall with bodies…

    Warning: You should read Unraveled before you read this novella because it contains spoilers for that plot.

     First: I apologize for being so late in reviewing this novella. It slipped through the cracks in my Kindle.

     Estep continues her habit of using her novellas to present Gin Blanco's world from the perspective of one of the supporting characters, in this case, the vampire Silvio, her personal assistant. Silvio isn't really into holiday celebrations and decorations, especially the dozens of red and green glittery paper pigs that Gin is hanging from the Pork Pit's ceiling in preparation for her big holiday party. Eager to get away from all the cutting and pasting and glittering, Silvio escapes down the street to coffee shop to meet up with his date, Martin Mahoney, a handsome college professor (100% human). Unfortunately, what happens next doesn't quite match up with his expectations, and Silvio learns a new life lesson.

     Estep gives the reader several bits of new information about Silvio in this story that are quite interesting, particularly the fact that he has been writing a book—a detective fiction novel that mirrors his (and Gin's) experiences. The book is nearly finished, but Silvio hasn't yet worked out the ending. As it turns out, today's adventure will solve that problem for him.

     I always enjoy the novellas in this series because with all the novels being written from Gin's point of view, it's nice to get someone else's perspective on the dangerous events that are considered "normal" in the Ashland underworld. Silvio has always been an interesting character, and this novella makes him even more so.

1 comment:

  1. “Haints and Hobwebs” in THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF GHOST ROMANCE Anthology is scheduled to be released 09/28/2012 (Not the 10/2011 listed above).