Rachel Aaron is an Orbit author, through and through, under both her real name and the pseudonym Rachel Bach. She is a writer who was cultivated by Orbit and whose audience grew through some smart publishing decisions in the early days of Orbit’s US imprint. To wit, Orbit US launched in 2007 and her debut, The Spirit Thief, published in October 2010.
Orbit learned from the successful publishing plan they employed for Brent Weeks’s Night Angel Trilogy (and Del Rey employed for Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels)—monthly sequential publication for immediate shelf presence. It proved successful for Aaron, too.
The reviews she received for her debut, were on the whole, positive. My colleague at SFFWorld Mark Yon called The Spirit Thief “A promising debut and one from a writer to watch in the future,” Mihir Wanchoo of Fantasy Book Critic said it’s a “great page turner and the characterization was well done… Rachel Aaron’s greatest strength is that she has written a very engaging tale and the world scenario seems to have more surprises in store,” and Publishers Weekly said “Aaron pulls the action together and turns in a romp of a lighthearted fantasy starring an absolutely darling rogue.”
The next two books, The Spirit Rebellion and The Spirit Eater, followed in November 2010 and December 2010 respectively and began building Aaron’s readership. With the three books released so quickly together, there was a bit of a wait for book four. However, Orbit did something for Aaron and her books that isn’t always met with rousing cheers by readers (but proved smart in the long-run)—they changed up the design and format of the books. Though the original artwork was quite eye-catching and provided a unifying theme across the three titles, some felt it lent more of an Urban Fantasy feel to the books rather than the Sword & Sorcery adventures they actually were.
Now, this is a two-fold thing: the art and design of the books changed by focusing on the character of Eli front and center, and the future books were to be published as trade paperback. In publishing terms (as I see it, anyway) promoting from mass market to trade paperback shows confidence in the author and raises the author’s profile. Also, with the redesign of the series, Orbit repackaged the first three books in a terrific omnibus volume titled The Legend of Eli Monpress as a ‘refresher’ before publishing the final two volumes, The Spirit War and Spirit’s End. This is the kind of thing a publisher does to ensure the author has steady shelf presence and to establish a quick visual identity. Here is a nice overview on the Orbit Books blog of what went into the redesign from artist Sam Weber and Orbit’s design sorceress Laura Panepinto.
Fortunately for readers, what is between the covers of the Eli Monpress novels backs up the great design of the books themselves. To wit, in the books, Aaron tells the story of the titular Monpress, a master thief whose ultimate goal is to have the highest bounty ever surmounted placed on his head. Over the course of the five novels in this series, Aaron introduces readers to a fantastic secondary world reminiscent of Renaissance Italy and / or France. The Eli Monpress saga is 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. Though the series is named after Eli Monpress, Aaron focuses just as much attention on Miranda, a member of the Spirit Council, which equates to a magical governing body. Eli’s partners, Josef and Nico are also major players whose stories unfold over the five novels. Aaron begins on a smaller, intimate scale by focusing on Eli’s goals, but by saga’s end, she’s broadened the scope to a more global level. The progression of that scale over the five books is handled very well and made for a very rewarding experience.
One (of the many) things that pleased me about Miranda and Eli’s story is that no romance came to fruition between the two. Tension was present that could have led to such a relationship, it would have been an easy temptation for Aaron to follow that course, but Miranda and Eli are better as characters for it not happening. In short, what the writer chooses not to tell is often as important as what the writer did choose to tell in their story.
The books remind me a bit of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard sequence, if a bit lighter in tone. Eli has some echoes of Robin Hood, too, with his band including Nico and Josef. The feel of these books is adventure fantasy, very much like sword and sorcery, though not quite as grimy as something like Paul Kemp or Douglas Hulick. This isn’t meant as a value judgment on any of these authors; Aaron’s fantasy is just a bit more upbeat, more optimistic. Quite simply, they are fun, entertaining reads and much like Eli himself, these novels have some sneaky thought-provoking themes throughout the series. The gang at Fantasy Book Critic conducted a great interview with Rachel here.
Then there’s Rachel’s Paradox series of novels—comprised of Fortune’s Pawn, Honor’s Knight, and Heaven’s Queen—published under the pen name Rachel Bach. Aaron was very open about the pseudonym being used to differentiate her SF from her Fantasy. This isn’t to say there aren’t parallels between what Rachel is doing in her Bach and Aaron books, just a little bit more of some stuff in Bach (more swearing, more sex) and a different setting (secondary fantasy world v. Space Opera). If the Eli books are PG-13, then the Paradox books are more of an R rating.
Again, Orbit did the quick release schedule for these books (published 2013-2014) to ensure immediate shelf presence. Keeping the books in the Trade Paperback format also proves the publisher’s continued faith in Rachel Bach/Aaron. The Paradox novels focus on Devi Morris, a mercenary who kicks ass in her power armor while using her named weapons. If Eli was a fun bombastic character, Devi takes the over-the-top approach to another level. Also, these Paradox novels are told in Devi’s first person voice, making for a naturally more intimate feel throughout the series.
The universe in the Paradox novels is populated by multiple sentient species that have allied (or found enemies) in humanity: the bird like aeon, the tall lizard-like xith’cals, and the phantoms which seem an almost Lovecraftian nightmare from another universe. Humanity has evolved, too: the human/alien hybrids known as Symbionts are one slice of evolution and adaptation while people who see auras and possesses special abilities—like the ship’s astrogator Nova—is another slice. In another example of great story escalation, we start out in a personal story on an intimate level about the adventures of one character (and what a character Devi is) in the first book, and by the third installment the scale has expanded greatly to encompass the fate of the galaxy.
In a snapshot, Devi is recruited to be part of an elite mercenary group, falls for the chef Rupert (who is more than just a simple chef) and learns of a powerful invading force threatening the universe. Moreover, she becomes more intricately tied into the invaders and a potential solution. That boils down the general plot progression. Throw in the above-mentioned aliens, space battles, power armor, solid characterization and you’ve got a fun space-based science fiction series. She gets some great moments of character interaction through these books along with the grand canvas of the story. Fun is sometimes an overlooked commodity in today’s genre landscape, but not so in these books.
I said at the closing of my review of Heaven’s Queen (for SFFWorld): “In short, Wherever Rachel (Bach or Aaron) spins her tales, I’ll follow.” The writer-person behind both names has an extremely engaging authorial voice and seems to want us as the reader to have as much fun reading her books as she has writing them. For my reading sensibilities, that’s a pretty good thing.
Check out Rachel’s blog and follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Aaron.
Read excerpts from The Spirit Thief and Fortune’s Pawn.
All of the books in this article are available at BN.com: Rachel Aaron / Rachel Bach.
Rob Bedford lives in NJ with his wife and dog. He reviews books and moderates forums at SFFWorld, has a blog about stuff, and writes “The Completist” column for SF Signal. If you want to read random thoughts about books, TV, his dog, and beer you can follow him on Twitter: @RobHBedford.