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A Shot of Gin coverJuniper “Gin” Cain is a mystery to the supernatural underworld of Reno, Nevada. She possesses superhuman abilities, quick healing, and vampires puke up her blood if they try to drink it. Yet no one can correctly identify to which supernatural taxonomy she belongs. She’s alive, so not a vampire; can’t do magic, so not a witch. But she works security for a casino run by a vampire, and she’s just as capable of bouncing the things that go bump in the night as any other guard.

When a irradiated zombie stomps into the casino and attacks a regular, Gin’s response leads to questions during the upcoming vampire political session, conveniently being held at her casino. She and her vampire boss escape into the Nevada wilds, and Gin learns she’s being tracked by the thing that made the zombie. In a ghost town in the Nevada desert, Gin sets off a nuclear explosion and yet survives. Maybe it’s time she finds some answers to the mystery of who she is.

Like other urban fantasy novels, A Shot of Gin is heavily tied to a city. Reno and its surrounding areas prove a perfect fit for what Wagner is trying to do: the region has history and varying locales that provide a lot of scenery for Wagner to work with. The US is a large, diverse place, and more books should emphasize that. But the small nature of this particular city gives the novel an intimacy than Las Vegas, Chicago, New York, or multiple other locations might have allowed. Consequently, it achieves a better feel for the character of Gin. To be sure, if the series continues, Gin will surely have to visit Vegas, but for now the small setting makes for a better novel.

And certainly the novel reads like the opening of a series. That is to say, Wagner sets up a lot of interesting elements in their world that beg for exploration in future series. This novel checks off the tropes seemingly required of Anita Blake-style urban fantasies: it mixes mystery, horror, and fantasy into contemporary society with a splash of heroic feminine action. There are vampires and vampire politics, the fey, witches, and badass action. Wagner puts their special spin on the genre with the addition of some very interesting elements that, if discussed, would be spoilerific. But in particular, later on in the book, there’s an interesting correlation of place and power that could make for wonderful future tales.

Juniper Cain is an interesting and, at times, annoying main character. She’s fun, and contrarian to the point of damaging her own efforts. Well past when she should be dealing with things, she chooses not to. She might have a binge alcoholism problem. Gin definitely has PTSD from the night she was introduced to the supernatural underworld. All in all, she wants to get along, take care of the people around her, and party with her friends. But the mystery of her blood means that she’s of interest to the powerful in her world. This mystery of who or what she is works well for the novel and, frankly, is over too quickly.

This is Phoebe Wagner’s debut novel. It’s uneven and not everything comes together. In this way, A Shot of Gin is reminiscent of Storm Front by Jim Butcher (2000): both novels read as opening chapters onto something larger; they’re introductions to a wider world. Storm Front is, by far, the weakest of the Dresden Files novels; however, it’s also what launched that series into becoming one of the best in the urban fantasy genre. A Shot of Gin contains similar potential. Particularly, Wagner’s worldbuilding is intriguing. There’s so much they can explore in future installments.

For example, A Shot of Gin gives readers insight into vampire politics and cursorily discusses witches’ diplomatic relations with the vampires. Those relations aren’t explored here, and rightly so, but they make for interesting speculation. What else exists in Wagner’s world? We see in small doses lycanthropes, the fey, and zombies. So what else is there? How do their politics play into the stories that Wagner wants to tell? Wagner has plenty of big ideas in this novel, but none of them are (yet) explored in depth.

The main mystery speaks to themes of identity. Gin resists exploring her identity because she just wants to live her life, and at the novel’s opening she has largely succeeded in avoiding any deeper self-reflection. It’s only when her identity puts her at risk from powerful elites that she’s forced to figure out who she is. This is a deep question that many people deal with every day; yet there is not much exploration of this theme, either. Gin’s answer to her peril is to run away into alcohol and escapism. While totally understandable, it’s not an answer—for Gin or the reader. It could be argued that Gin eventually accepts herself in order to battle the Big Bad of the novel, but it doesn’t seem to be Gin’s choice: she’s forced to do it, in order to protect her friends and family. Maybe that is a type of acceptance; your mileage may vary.

All this is further problematized by the novel’s other theme of consent. Gin requests every Halloween off from her job. She holes herself up in her room and doesn’t come out till the holiday is over. Why? Because her introduction to the supernatural underworld was traumatic and a violation of her bodily autonomy. Gin believed that she was going to a vampire LARP and signed up to be a blood donor. But it wasn’t a LARP; it was real, as are her memories of that night. Is it consent when someone signs a contract not knowing the full consequences of that contract? In the American legal system, yes, it is. But ethically is it consent? Probably not. This is further complicated, of course, when those consequences involve a person’s body. Wagner posits all this information but doesn’t delve too deeply into the arguments. Maybe they think the answer is plainly obvious, and this reviewer is simply dense.

Perhaps their novel’s length doesn’t give Wagner a lot of room for ruminating deeply on themes. A Shot of Gin is a short novel by the standards of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. While novels in the urban fantasy subgenre are slimmer than the bricks of epic fantasy, they still come in at 350+ pages. This is 274 pages packed with action and worldbuilding. The small page count makes for a quick read, and the pacing of the novel is rather breakneck, with pauses in all the right spots to allow the reader to catch up. But it also means that important moments, such as the final battle with the Big Bad, are over too quickly. It would have been nice to sit within those scenes a little longer.

There’s plenty of charm to be found here, though, and readers will be won over by the characters. Wagner’s writing is excellent, and there are more than a few moments worth rereading to savor, such as any moment with Gin and her old college roommate. The ending is satisfying in the sense that the main arc ends with possibilities for many more stories. This is a book with potential and, given a chance, could be the beginning of an excellent series.

Eric Primm is an engineer in the US Midwest. He makes sure the wings stay attached to the airplane. When not reading or writing SFF, he’s learning to bake bread and speak French, occasionally at the same time. Eric reviews SFF, horror, history, and political books on his blog
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