Published by Orbit
Sample Chapter: http://www.rachelaaron.net/thespiritthief-sample.php
Review copy provided courtesy of Orbit Books
Set in what seems to be a vaguely fantasized France and Italy, Rachel Aaron’s Eli Monpress novels, the first three of which (The Spirit Thief, The Spirit Rebellion, and The Spirit Eater) appear in The Legend of Eli Monpress could be characterized as many things within the fantasy genre. High Fantasy, Swords and Sorcery, Adventure Fantasy, Light Fantasy – all are apt, but mostly, they are just fun, entertaining reads. In Aaron’s world, every object has a spirit (rocks, doors, dogs) and magic is employed by a wizard’s cooperation and employment of these spirits. When Spirits are enslaved or made to act against their will, the body of magicians known as the Spirit Council steps into the situation.
The first novel, The Spirit Thief, starts with Eli pulling an inspired bit of thievery. Not content with stealing gold and riches, he steals King Henrith of Mellinor, which really is a kidnapping though not explicitly referred to as such. Eli’s goal is to increase the bounty on his head to one million gold, and be the ‘most wanted’ thief in history. This act of thievery brings Eli even greater attention of Miranda Lyoness and her ghosthound Gin, from the Spirit Council, the group of mages who oversee the proper use and communications of Spirits. Conveniently, Miranda was on her to Mellinor bearing a message for the now-stolen king. In Mellinor, mages are not looked upon very favorably, and as such (years before the story begins), the King’s brother Renaud was exiled for exhibiting magical proclivities. With the King off the throne, Renaud returns and makes his bid for power. Of course, Renaud is a bit angry after many years of exile and while he comes across to the populace as forgiving and benevolent, his goals are much more sinister and include taking control of a great magical object in the heart of Mellinor. Much of the novel entails the cat and mouse games between Miranda/Gin and Eli’s trio, which comprises Eli, the swordsman Joseph, and the demonseed girl Nico as well as attempts to bring down Renaud from his usurped throne and return Henrith to its seat.
The second novel, The Spirit Rebellion, picks up fairly shortly after The Spirit Eater, but before the full narrative of the novel begins, we see a scene which takes place perhaps a couple of decades prior to the novel’s events. Though names aren’t quite revealed, it is implied to be Eli as a young boy. Much of The Spirit Rebellion deals with the fallout from the previous volume: Miranda returning to the Spirit Council to report her activities as recounted in The Spirit Thief¸ Eli, Joseph, and Nico visiting a Shaper named Slorn (a mage who can make magical weapons and artifacts) to help craft something for Nico, and how the two storylines converge in the city of Gaol which basically dares Eli to come through its protected gates. Aaron does a nice job of further fleshing out the main characters, building up a supporting cast (introducing Eli’s mentor/father, introducing Slorn the shaper) for them, revealing more about the world (more depth to the Spirit Council, Council of Thrones, and League of Storms) all while continuing the entertaining story. In essence, The Spirit Rebellion, is a natural continuation of the story she began in the first volume.
The Spirit Eater is the third and final novel in this thick omnibus and once again, Aaron raises the stakes, brings more of the characters to the forefront and continues to reveal more of the “long story” she’s intending to tell which have encompassed the more episodic nature of the first two volumes. After building on events and consequences of characters actions in the previous two novels, The Spirit Eater has a terrific conclusion and once the dust settles and clouds clear, she throws a great pitch at the end to keep readers questioning things. In short, I thought it was a fine way to end the novel and build up anticipation for the fourth volume, The Spirit War.
Let’s look at the characters: Eli Monpress would be the first person to tell you he’s the greatest thief in the world, he’d also tell you that he’s charming, smart, and a lot of fun. Sometimes characters and people who boast about themselves are full of hot air and quite the opposite of what their words say. In the case of Eli, he’s pretty much telling the truth. I don’t think I can get out of this review without drawing a comparison to Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora because the similarities are there – both characters are confident, snarky, and head strong thieves. Though Aaron and Lynch may be drawing from the same source material and the sense of fun is present in both author’s works, that’s where the strong similarities end.
At times, I also saw flashes of perhaps the greatest rogue of all time, Robin Hood, which came through most strongly when Eli brought the gang to his small village aptly titled Home. Though Eli’s character has a great deal of weight in the three novels in this lovely omnibus, much of the narrative is also focused on Miranda/Gin, Joseph, and Nico. Joseph is a master swordsman who wields the most powerful awakened (magicked) blade in the world, the Heart of War.
Miranda is the head-strong, eager member of the council with strong ties to Etmon Banage, the head of the council in that he is also her mentor. Miranda’s ghosthound, Gin, provides a great sounding board for Miranda and is quite powerful and endearing in his own right. As a result, she’s looked upon with great scrutiny by other members of the council. If I were to be honest, seeing a short tale focused solely on Gin would be welcome. Initially, she comes across as bordering on too much of a rule abiding goody-two-shoes. As the stories progressed, she grew from that initial typecasting, though at times she was still a frustrating character. That said, despite her growth and development she stayed true to herself.
Joseph is the self-reflecting swordsman, continually doubting his own abilities and fearful to rely on the Heart of War, the most powerful ‘awakened’ (i.e. enhanced with spirit magic) sword in the world. There’s almost a sense that Joseph has read Michael Moorcock’s Elric as a cautionary tale of how not to depend on your powerful sword.
Rounding out Eli’s power trio is the mysterious Nico, about whom very little is known even to her two companions save that she holds within herself a demonseed, which though it can be the source of great power, it can also consume her entirely. Between Nico and Joseph, Aaron’s built a great affinity that comes through as one of the stronger elements of the novel.
The Eli Monpress saga is one rich with magic, since everything has some kind of spirit, everything can be awakened and utilized by a wizard. I found this magic system to be relatively unique and it played for both humor (specifically in the dialogue between wizards and spirits that inhabit objects) as well as some more heavy questions of morality. At times this can be overwhelming and the characters are very (and almost too) powerful. It makes for interesting power plays for most of the events in the novel, though my only criticism about the magic is that, while events have consequences that play out throughout the novels, the spirit magic employed by the spiritualists/wizards seemingly does not have consequences save for the utter dependence spiritualists place on their magic. The spirits always seem to be present and available for use, so there’s no real sense of source depletion. Though I suspect, based on hints over the course of the series thus far, this status quo of spirit magic may change in the concluding two volumes of the series. Part of the long game Aaron is playing, I’d say. Another convenience is how the characters often come together. For example, in the second volume Eli is going to Gaol. The Spirit Council charges Miranda to visit Gaol about something unrelated to Eli’s visit. It seems too convenient at times for the sake of the story and a little less organic in the storytelling that barely holds credibility. That said, the pacing and entertainment of the story make it easy to overlook such plot conveniences.
Some notes on the physical book…One thing which is missing from this book is the standard set of accoutrements readers (such as myself) like to see in fantasy tomes. That standard set includes a map, a glossary, a character sheet, etc. Since this is an omnibus of the series, these few extra pages would have been a really nice addition. On the other hand, Orbit made a design switch from how the covers originally presented in their mass-market version to the new omnibus. The Sam Weber art and font design come together quite nicely as a thick tome I happily will be putting on permanent placement on my bookshelves.
All that having been said, I really enjoyed the three books bound together in The Legend of Eli Monpress. While Rachel Aaron is treading relatively familiar ground, that makes it no less enjoyable. The term ‘comfort read’ is often used as a pejorative, but in the case of the Eli Monpress novels, I use it as a complement – sometimes you want to read something that will connect with certain elements in your own reading sensibilities and Aaron did that quite well for me. Let’s put it this way, I eat pizza every Friday for a reason – I know what I’m getting and pizza is one of my favorite foods.
The story moved at a brisk pace, I found Aaron’s author voice to be very engaging and her ability to keep me hooked into the narrative quite strong. The tone is a bit lighter than the aforementioned Gentlemen Bastards sequence by Scott Lynch, but by no means is that to say readers of one won’t enjoy the other. Initially there’s a feel of Sword and Sorcery, but as the series progresses, so does the scope to something more grand, knocking on the doors of High/Epic Fantasy, though such genre terms are by no means all encompassing for these books. I also found similarities in tone to Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations and think readers who enjoyed Brandon Sanderson’s oeuvre would enjoy these books. Aaron’s written three engaging, light novels that have me very much looking forward to where she next takes the story of Eli Monpress, Joseph, Nico, Miranda and Gin, Etmon, and Slorn.
– Recommended –
© 2012 Rob H. Bedford
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