Monday, August 19, 2013

Heart of Venom (Elemental Assassin #9) by Jennifer Estep

Gin is trying to have a fun day out with her friends, at the spa with a whole lot of food (and a whole lot of chocolate) when assassins, kidnappers and thugs interrupt things. Life as the Spider, the most lethal assassin in the corrupt city of Ashland, means never having a day off.

But this time the thugs do not focus on Gin, they focus on Sophia, one of Gin’s closest friends. The demons in her past have finally caught up with her; kidnapping her and imprisoning her where she had escaped so many years before.

Of course, these kidnappers don’t realise who they’re dealing with – and how very loyal the Spider is to her friends.

So many things I love about this book – and most of them I have covered so many times in the series. I love Gin, I love the world and its diverse elements that create a truly unique feel. I love the fight scenes and how they’re laid out. But there are also several elements to this book that put it above most of the series.

One thing I really liked about this book is Gin only gets incidentally beat up – and most of that from random blows in fights and her taking a nose dive off a cliff. There’s no prolonged torture/beating scene of Gin (albeit some witnessed of Sophia) that leaves her a complete wreck (there are times when things try to beat her – and find that it doesn’t do a lot with her Stone magic) which made me feel a little more comfortable. Apart from anything else, Gin is an awesome, lethal assassin; I don’t expect her to get out of any situation unscathed but I don’t expect her to have prolonged “Gin gets tortured” scenes every book either. It felt a little torture porny and I was glad to see it skip this book.

I also liked that Gin used her magic so overtly. My old complaint about this series is that Gin is supposed to be the most powerful elemental ever (or one of them) but she very rarely uses that power, even when faced with other elementals. It was frustrating. So I loved to see her just doing her epic thing and taking down small armies with her power

In fact I loved the whole epic of this book. I know that overpowered characters can be hollow – but Gin has had 8 books to hone her power and skills, how nuance et al. Sometimes it’s nice to have a character who is just unassailably awesome. Shallow of me? Maybe, sometimes I just like to see someone who kick’s arse in epic fashion. I especially loved her embracing her notoriety. People knowing she’s the Spider is a constant source of aggravation to her these last few books, but it’s nice to see her turn that into a source of power – to look at enemies and announce that she’s the Spider and how dead that makes them.

But Gin is more than that – yes she’s deadly and powerful – but she’s also intelligent. She didn’t just run into a gang of men and show off her powers and kill them all – she used strategy, she used tactics, she used the terrain and the vulnerabilities around her. She’s not just a terrifying fighter – she’s a clever one.

And she’s a clever one with friends – good friends. I love how Gin has built up her network of friends and supporters since the first book. I like that all of them have had sufficient backstory and attention paid to them to have their own storylines, their own personality and their own characterisation. I love that it doesn’t just say “Gin loves this person and is loyal to them” but we’ve seen the reason for that loyalty, the reason for that connection and the shared history between her and the people in her life. So I really liked that this book explored Sophia and Jo Jo more since they’[d been background characters for so long, integral parts of Gin’s life, but never with any real explanation as to how they joined her circle. It felt like a completion, making sure every one of the people around Gin were fully realised as people.

And they’re competent in their own ways. Not all of them are deadly – though most of them are. Gin relies on them a lot to back her in a fight, to heal her, to support her – they’re not just people to protect and we actually have a Strong Female Character who doesn’t just accept help – but is willing to ask for it AND from other strong women as well! More she actually socialises with her friends. She goes to clubs with Bria, she cooks for all her friends (and I love her joy in cooking), the book opens with her, Jo-Jo, Sophia, Rosalyn and Bria having a day together.

The social network Gin has is what really makes this series for me and elevates it above having a strong deadly woman kicking the arse of various bad guys.

That social net also has some realness in that it’s not always perfect. We’ve had tension with Gin and Rosalyn, Gin and Bria and now Owen and everyone in the past. The relationships have been rocky. And this book one element of that I liked is Owen coming to Gin with his apologies over the events of the last 3 books. While Gin loves him and wants to be with him, she takes her time accepting his apology and deciding if she wants to re-enter a relationship again. There’s no fluffy, if a little shallow, “I love you all is forgiven”, she considers how he hurt her, she considers whether she wants to take the risk with him doing the same thing again – it adds another level of realness that draws me into these characters.

Onto the flaws – I’m reaching the limits of my patience with the whole foreshadowing of M Monroe. Whoever they are or whatever they want. I can take one more book of foreshadowing if there’s an awesome story with plenty of development to back it up, before I get irritated with the preamble.

There’s a torture scene that I generally found unnecessary and annoying. Torturing for information – especially information you can’t quickly and easily verify – is pointless since there is absolutely no way you can guarantee your victim isn’t lying; in fact he has every reason to lie to please you and stop you hurting him. The scene doesn’t even earn Gin any information and it ends up being another example of how very very tough and “strong” Gin can be and how her friends have come to recognise her violence. It’s unnecessary – we know how cold Gin can be, her death count alone suggests that, her being an assassin suggests that and the people around her embrace her as an assassin. We didn’t need the extra torture scene to make the point.

It was only brief, but I could really do without the self-recrimination. Why Gin decides to blame herself for Sophia’s kidnapping is bemusing and, again, unnecessary. Can’t Sophia’s loss be poignant enough without having to invoke Gin guilt?

After 9 books, this story is sorely lacking in diverse representation. Of the decently large cast of regular characters, only Rosalyn and Xavier are POC and they have the most minor role, and the least “screen time” of the whole group.  We have a reference to Warren having Cherokee heritage but, again, he has a much smaller role to play in the group than most – than Bria, Finn, Owen, Jo-Jo and Sophia. We also have no GBLT people, again. Even minor characters and bit characters are overwhelmingly white and entirely straight. Lack of diversity is a problem in any book and any series – but it’s a problem that is exacerbated the longer a series lasts and the more characters it has.

I loved this book. Even without advancing the meta, it did an excellent job of developing he characters and their relationships which shows you can still have a book this far into a series that is devoted to the characters within it rather than advancing the plot – so long as it is done right. It was action packed, highly emotional and full of epic and excitement. An all-round truly excellent read. The recurring flaws in the series are still there, though and their continuation is making me look warily towards a book 10.

A copy of this book was received through Edelweis