Shadowhawk reviews the first novel in the popular Eli Monpress series by author Rachel Aaron, published by Orbit Books.
“Extremely entertaining with large doses of humour, Spirit Thief is one of the most fun reads of the year.“ ~The Founding Fields
While I do like my fantasy novels to often be serious, dark, gritty and somewhat nuanced to an extreme, I do also love the simple approach every now and then. By which I mean that I love to read fantasy that has an easy narrative, moves along at a steady, easy clip, and entertains me in the same way that a good comedy movie does. Rachel Aaron’s Spirit Thief hits all those right notes and then some. I first met her through NaNoWriMo last year and her blogposts on writing since then (and older ones) have been very helpful to me with regards to my own writing and I’d wanted to get around to reading her novels soon as I could. Juggling my reading around to fit them in was a bit of a tricky proposition, although I finally managed it this month.
The first thing that struck me about her writing and her world was how similar it is to Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations novels. Both authors have an approach to their writing that doesn’t dazzle the reader with fancy stuff or throws too much at them to show off a complex, and often twisted, world. They ease the reader into their world, gently introducing them to the characters and the events. Not to mention that their characters are some of the most fun characters to read about ever, because of their quips and mannerisms, and their straightforward approach to their lives.
After reading Spirit Thief, Eli Monpress is definitely one of my favourite male protagonists ever, and the same for Miranda Lyonette, who is Eli’s rival and nemesis rolled into one, of sorts. Their at-odds relationship is very much like that of Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks from the 2002 hit Catch Me If You Can. Eli is a cheeky thief who can charm his way out of almost any situation, while Miranda is the (slightly) frustrated but determined mage who is tasked with bringing him in, on the orders of the Spirit Court itself. There is a great, fun camaraderie between the two, enhanced by the company that these two keep. With Eli, it’s the mystery swordsman Josef and a girl named Nico who has a rather mysterious past that makes her very dangerous to everyone around her. With Miranda, it’s her spirit-companion ghosthound, Gin, and her other spirits that she has convinced to ally with her, such as Durn, a stone spirit.
Which brings me to one of the things that I really enjoyed about the novel: the magic. We don’t have wizards throwing spells around at each other here, or shamans using the power of the elements against others. Not quite. The way the magic in this world works is that each and every thing, whether it is a ghosthound or a door, the wind or the sand, they all have spirits, even humans. Most people can only distantly “hear” and “feel” these spirits, but there are some, such as the wizards of the Spirit Court, who can call on these spirits to do their work. And it’s not a case of seizing the power of these spirits, but convincing them to ally with the wizard in question, to form a somewhat symbiotic relationship based on truth, honesty and friendship. This was a really fun thing to read about. It appears to be a rather idealistic concept but Rachel pulls it off with flair, showing us how the deliberate misuse of such power can lead to the spirit-human relationship being horribly imbalanced, as well as cavalier use of it, no matter if it’s well-intentioned or not. Certainly some important lessons here.
Like I said, the characters are the shining part of the novel for me. Whether it is Eli charming a depressed prison door into letting him escape, or Miranda calling on the power of her spirit-companions to help her against the enemy, it all makes for a profoundly character-drive narrative. Both Eli and Miranda, as well as their companions (whether spirit or not) are portrayed as intelligent and resourceful, able to think on their feet and surprise you with their brilliance. After all, how many thieves do you know of who actually want to increase the bounties on their heads? Eli Monpress is crazy. But that’s why I like him. Miranda’s oftern stern and stubborn attitude against what he does, such as giving all spirit-wizards a bad name with his thieving and such, contrasts well and whenever these two verbally clashed, it was like watching two old friends and enemies talking, comfortable in their views. Or something like that.
Point is, they really couldn’t have been better.
The world-building itself, whether it is the Spirit Court, the spirit-magic, or the politics of the various kingdoms, it was all whimsically fantastic. The breath of fresh air in a genre that is increasingly devoted to grandiose (not really a bad thing) narratives with innumerable characters, death aplenty, bloodthirsty fratricidal wars, and other more unwholesome things. Same as with Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations novels. There’s an almost magical quality to the world, in the sense that the scene from Snow White and the Huntsman when Snow White meets the magic stag in the home of the fairies. And that’s what drew me in, aside from the playful banter between Miranda and Gin of course, and the hints at Eli’s own past as part of a darker organisation than the Spirit Court, to which Nico is also intrinsically tied.
The pacing of the novel is pretty perfect. At no point was I bored of the narrative or the characters, and neither did I feel as if the narrative was too slow or too pacy. There is a gradual build-up in the tension, with ever-increasing stakes, right to the climax itself. At times it’s almost as if you are going further and further through a dungeon, fighting bigger and badder bosses but that’s not a criticism that I can honestly hold against the novel or the author. It gives the novel a realistic feel of sorts and allows Rachel to show the truly wide scope of her world and the magic there-in. I loved that aspect of the novel.
Her villain is no slouch either, when compared to Eli and Miranda. Renaud was an interesting character. When we first see him, he is surrounded in all kinds of mysteries (mysteries being an important theme of the novel) and right off we see that he is one of those wizards that the Spirit Court is always warning against: the ones who don’t care about the spirits and misuse them for their own ends. I expected him to be “evil” to a degree yes, but the depths he goes to was surprising indeed. His action scenes with Eli and Miranda were great cinematic moments that you can visualise perfectly, with sound effects. Renaud’s manipulations and his various trickeries were fun to read about, although somewhat disturbing as well. He definitely doesn’t care about who he hurts or why, he justwantsto hurt.
Overall, I had a ton of fun reading the novel. Some great characters, great setting, great magic, great experience. Spirit Thief is everything I could want in a fantasy novel, except for one thing: it’s too short! Good thing the sequel is heftier then! This is a top recommended read, because it’s a novel you can fall in love with.