The Spirit Rebellion by Rachel Aaron – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the second novel in the Eli Monpress series from Orbit Books.
“This is a wonderful, light-hearted novel that is true to the spirit of the first novel in the series and builds on all the right things from before. Highly recommended.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
Every now and then there is an author who impresses me with his/her first novel in a series and then goes on to deliver a smashing sequel that is every bit as good as the first, if not better. Last year that was Matt Forbeck with his Brave New World trilogy and Nathan Long with his Jane Carver of Waar duology. This year it is Jean Johnson with her Theirs Not To Reason Why novels, and now Rachel Aaron with the first two of her Elo Monpress novels. Generally, these books are in a class of their own and if I could, I would give them all a 20/10 because they are just that awesome.
The Spirit Rebellion follows Eli, Miranda and their various companions as Miranda falls into a spot of trouble with the Spiritualists and Eli falls victim to his own ego when it comes to thievery. The Spirit Thief, which first introduced me to all these characters, was a stellar book because of how easy going and light-hearted it was, while also being morally instructive, and with a really interesting magic system that appealed to me. The sequel takes things several steps further, fleshes out the world that Rachel Aaron created in the previous book, and ups the stakes in a really unexpected, and quite a fun, way.
This bit is rather important actually. In any sequel, I always look at how the author progresses things further, by adding a bunch of new elements and making things much more dramatic and rife with tension. The Spirit Thief boiled down to the fact that somehow a rogue wizard and and a wizardess of the Spirit Court had to work to free a captured Spirit from a man who was a tyrant and broke every stricture of Spirit-magic. The Spirit Rebellion boils down the fact that the selfsame rogue and agent of the Spirit Court have to work to free an entire nation of spirits held in thrall by an actual tyrant. It was a huge step up in the drama that unfolds right from the very first few pages.
Last year, two of the top elements of The Spirit Thief were the characterisation and the world-building. In the sequel, Rachel Aaron doesn’t skimp on either and in fact, she has done a better job than before. I wasn’t sure if that would be possible, but Rachel Aaron managed to hit all the right notes. The interactions between Miranda and the Spirit Court helped establish her morality, her attitude and her beliefs in the work that the Spirit Court is meant to be doing. She doesn’t kowtow to any sort of bullying, nor does she give in to pressure. She does her best to get around the petty politics of the Spirit Court and that first act with her defiance completely won me over. Not to mention that the climax of the act was written in a way that was really cinematic. I was literally on the edge of my seat, cheering her own as she did her thing. Miranda Lyonette, in simple terms, just rocks.
And Eli is no slouch either. He was a (relatively) carefree and easy-going thief who looked on his “job” as something that was meant to be enjoyed as much as it was meant to be taken seriously. He is one of the most charming rogue-thiefs I’ve read in fantasy fiction and he definitely has his own niche there. The way that he responds to everything around him, whether it is the bear-head blacksmith he deals with regularly or the aforementioned tyrant who holds an entire nation’s worth of spirits hostage or even Miranda and her ghosthound Gin, its just… so perfect. Eli Monpress is an integral part of The Spirit Rebellion’s dose of humour and he is next to indispensable when it comes to that.
One of the things that I really liked and appreciated about the book was that we learn a lot more about Nico and what she is. We get to see a lot more of her backstory, especially when it involves Josef, and this all served to make her much more likable than she was in the previous book. Early on, there are some fairly significant scenes involving her and her nature which also serve to offer commentary on the rest of the world and how the unspoken bonds of communication and action all work together. Nico herself was given a lot of attention towards the end, where we get to see a very different side of her character. Once again, it all helped to flesh out the character.
I won’t say much about the bad guy in the book this time around, since to say too much would give away a lot about him. But, I will say that he is a fairly unique type of villain. His motivations are simple, but his objectives are fairly complex ones. And hovering between the two as his method of achieving his objectives is the balancing scale of control. He is someone who wants control all around him in everything, whether it is over the spirit of a kettle or the walls of his palace. The situation created by his obsessive need for control isy also something that you don’t see everybody and the surprise that registers on Miranda and Eli as they finally understand the limits of his personality was pure narrative gold.
As with The Spirit Thief before it, The Spirit Rebellion is a book that succeeds in being excellent fiction because (yet another reason!) it is light-hearted to a great degree. There is a constant friendly banter between the characters and a few hijinks as well now and then which all means that there is never a dull moment in the narrative. And even though Eli drives a great portion of the humour in the novel (well, both novels I suppose!), Miranda, Gin, Josef and Nico aren’t that far behind him in that department. Aaron treats each of her characters equally, and gives them all a reason to shine and add their own brand(s) of humour to the narrative.
And finally, we come to the magic, or specifically, the Spirit Magic that is so unique to these novels. In the first novel events revolved around a Great Spirit. But in this one, events revolve around a Great Spirit AND a legion of minor spirits. One of the standout moments in the novel was seeing in action the behaviour of several Great Spirits throughout. Aaron established a certain baseline dramatic tension by using them, and also highlighted that the events that are happening are serious and, ultimately, very game-breaking. For when Spirits are being abused, matters involve the local Great Spirit as well. And each Great Spirit eventually answers to the rules of the Spirit World, which are rules separate and much more fundamental than those of the Spirit Court. To say more would be a spoiler, but suffice to say that the author managed to link the two novels (so far) together in a much more comprehensive and relevant manner beyond the obvious. It was all a natural progression by the rules of the world, and I loved every moment of it.
And the book lives up to its name in a conclusion and climax that was very, very satisfyingly. The novel started off really strong, and it ended really strong as well. I can’t really think of any negative points against the novel, other than a particular scene involving Nico and Josef towards the end, a scene that I felt was a bit too obvious and could have been handled better. That’s really it, as far as I’m concerned.
In conclusion, The Spirit Rebellion is a great sequel to The Spirit Thief, almost as good in fact and I’m definitely on board for third novel, The Spirit Eater.