This week sees the release of The Legend of Eli Monpress, an omnibus containing Rachel Aaron’s first three novels: The Spirit Thief, The Spirit Rebellion, and The Spirit Eater. The fourth novel in the series, entitled The Spirit War, is due out in June, so this book is a great way to catch up if you’re unfamiliar with this light but entertaining fantasy series. I enjoyed these novels, back when they were first released within three months of each other in 2010, but the new omnibus edition is a nice improvement over the individual books. That’s partly because the cover illustration by Sam Weber suits the series so much better than the original covers — and partly because the price tag is more attractive.
So, if you didn’t catch these novels when they were originally released and if you enjoy light, action-packed (and often funny) fantasy, this is a great opportunity to check out Rachel Aaron’s The Legend of Eli Monpress.
In the opening scene of The Spirit Thief, the debut novel that kicks off this omnibus edition, the notorious thief Eli Monpress is trying to escape from the royal dungeon of Mellinor. Eli is a wizard as well as a thief, but he’s not casting a conventional spell to bust through the dungeon’s door. Instead, he’s quite literally trying to persuade it to open for him. He charms, wheedles and cajoles, patiently explaining that the planks really would be much better off without all those annoying nails keeping them together. (When they can’t decide whether this would be a good idea or not, Eli utters the memorable line “Indecision is the bane of all hardwoods.”)
After all, in this fantasy world, every single object, from the tiniest pebble to the largest mountain, has a spirit. Wizards derive their power from the ability to enter into a mutual contract with these spirits, although others on the more evil side of the spectrum actually enslave them. Eli is unique in that he seems to be able to just talk spirits into doing what he wants. You may have seen this faux-animist “every object has a living spirit” type of magic before, but it’s used here in such a charming and often humorous way that it’s hard to get annoyed.
The plot of The Spirit Thief revolves around a few central characters. At this point most of them lack depth, but at least they’re consistently entertaining. Eli Monpress initially confuses everyone (including the reader) because his goal isn’t just, as you might reasonably expect from a thief, stealing as much treasure as he can grab. Instead, he wants to become more notorious so the bounty on his head goes up — possibly to gain more notoriety. Either way, he’s definitely not your standard criminal, and that’s not even taking into account his magical talents and a few other details that are only revealed later on. The second main character, Miranda, is a powerful Spirit Court wizard who, along with her giant ghosthound companion, has been dispatched to the kingdom of Mellinor to deal with its growing Eli Monpress problem, partly because Eli’s antics are giving wizards everywhere a terribly bad name and partly because he may also be looking for an ancient magical artifact with terrifying powers. As for side characters, Mellinor’s King Henrith is initially elated about having caught Eli. He’s already planning what he will spend the bounty money on, but before he knows it he finds himself kidnapped by his former prisoner — in order to increase that bounty even further, of course. Finally, Eli has two companions: Josef, the mysterious swordsman with his even more mysterious sword, and Nico, a girl and “demonseed” who seems to have unknown and terrible powers....
The Spirit Thief is in some ways an old-fashioned sword and sorcery novel. The main focus is on Eli Monpress, the roguish wizard thief who’s out for adventure, personal gain, and (most importantly) fame, and on Miranda, the powerful Spirit Court Wizard who is trying to catch Eli but inevitably finds herself caught up in his intrigues. The tone of the novel is so light that it’s almost breezy, mainly because it’s filled to the brim with funny interactions — sometimes at the expense of, well, everything else. Characters are constantly bickering or sending each other dirty looks, even during the most stressful moments. Rachel Aaron gives the impression that she really enjoys writing, and that enjoyment is contagious because it shines through in the books. Her prose has a fun, sly tone to it that’s a pleasure to read. Despite the action-packed plots, there’s lots of unabashed silliness in these stories — which you probably would have guessed, given that the first scene of the series features someone in a deep conversation with a door.
Still, the series is initially hard to pin down in terms of tone. After the first few chapters of The Spirit Thief, I felt like Rachel Aaron was going for comedy, focusing on jokes at the expense of a serious plot or a well-defined setting. Most of the events in the opening novel happen within a mile or so of Mellinor’s palace, which gives the story a deceptively small scale. However, an edge of darkness begins to creep in once the plot really takes shape, and this changes the tone significantly. As the series progresses and its fantasy universe becomes more than just an outline, a broader plot emerges that’s more complex than the simple fantasy caper you might have expected based on those funny opening chapters. There are organizations and forces vying for dominance, some of them working from the shadows. By the time you’ve finished reading the third novel, the tone has changed completely. Everything has become darker, more complex, and more confusing.
There is, basically, much more going on in this series than you’d suspect if you only read the first novel, although the seeds are there if you go back to take a look. Because of its smaller scope and relatively short length, The Spirit Thief feels like an elaborate prologue for the next two books, and while there’s something to be said for easing readers into a series with something accessible, it may also discourage people who are looking for more depth.
There are a few other issues, mainly characters that are on the thin side and a few extremely improbable plot twists, but The Legend of Eli Monpress is just entertaining enough to overcome those problems. The best way to approach this series is to just strap in and enjoy the ride without taking everything too seriously. It’s easy to poke holes in some of the plot twists and many of the characters, but if you’re willing to suspend disbelief just a bit, these books can be a lot of fun. If you enjoyed Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations, The Legend of Eli Monpress may be a great fit because it provides a similar experience: a light, action-packed and at times funny fantasy series that’s mostly about entertaining characters, but also gains some depth as it progresses.
Stefan Raets reads and reviews fantasy and science fiction whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. His website is Far Beyond Reality. If he could charm an object’s spirit like Eli, he’d try to talk his book collection into organizing itself.