The dashing rogue, Eli Monpress may already be the greatest thief his world has ever known, but he’s not taking any chances that his reputation won’t go down in the history books. For Eli, you see, the amount of money he happens to steal isn’t nearly as important as either the thrill of doing his job better than anyone else or the achievement of his life goal, which is to have the highest bounty on his head of any thief in history–one million gold standards. Oh, and he also happens to be an extremely talented–perhaps the most talented–wizard. Being Eli Monpress is nothing to slouch at.
First-time novelist Rachel Aaron’s The Spirit Thief, the first in her The Legend of Eli Monpress series, is a lightning-paced, quippy gem of an adventure story that holds excitement, intrigue, and colorfully drawn characters galore, and an intriguing magic system, to boot. In the universe of this series, everything has a spirit, and by everything, I mean everything. Animals, trees, plants, yes, but also fire, water, pots, pans, beds, doors. Each inanimate object has some sort of mental capacity, though some are certainly more intelligent or coherent than others. A wizard is someone who can communicate with these spirits. The average wizard will form a willing, master-servant relationship with a number of spirits, who will do his or her bidding in exchange for the ability to feed off of the wizard’s energy. Naturally, there are also wicked sorcerers, who misuse their power and enslave spirits into serving their will, often shattering their minds in the process.
Eli Monpress is in a different category all together. The reason he is such a brilliant thief is that he doesn’t keep spirits as servants or slaves. Rather, he has charisma in spades and a knack for talking to spirits and convincing them to help him out, making this practically impossible task seem almost easy and effortless, to the disbelief and consternation of other wizards. Trapped in prison? No problem, Eli can chat with the door, befriend it, and in no time, it will let him out. Need a good hiding place? Eli can flirt with some tree spirits and get them to cover up the house in which he is hiding. He can even talk a stick into bending like rope, something which absolutely baffles Miranda Lyonettete, a Spiritualist who works for the Spirit Court. In other words, she’s basically a magical cop and Eli her criminal prey.
Rachel Aaron populates her extremely fun world with extremely likable “heroes” and intriguing antagonists. While reading, I was as fond of Miranda as I was of Eli, which is no simple feat. Also enjoyable to read about are Josef Liechten, a master swordsman who wields a magical sword but uses it as rarely as possible, for fear that people might think his formidable reputation springs from his weapon alone and not his own talent, and an intense young girl, Nico, who travels with them despite being a demonseed. In other words, she is a human with a demon inside her that eats spirits. Eli and Josef, therefore, have to constantly keep this demonic side as obscured as possible so the spirits will cooperate with them. Meanwhile, Miranda has Gin, a huge ghosthound–a canine creature whose fur patterns constantly shift like clouds, and who is as loving and fiercely protective of his mistress as he is vicious to others. He also is possessed of a rather singular sense of humor.
The action of The Spirit Thief revolves around the repercussions of Eli kidnapping the king of a small kingdom for ransom. This kingdom, Mellinor, has banned all wizards for countless years and so its people are ill-equipped to deal with magic of any kind, leaving them thoroughly vulnerable to attack when the king’s older brother, Reynaud, who had been banished at a younger age for being a wizard himself, returns to reclaim the throne on the event of his brother’s capture. Reynaud is an enslaver with an ax to grind. What follows is a rip-roaring infusion of action, heroics, derring-do, and magic of all sorts that is as suspenseful as it is hilarious as it is endlessly fun to read. Perhaps Aaron’s wisest decision in the book is to cut away from Eli as much as possible, so more often than not, we are reading characters’ reactions to Eli and the mayhem he has caused, which allows his legend to build steadily over the course of the novel, and for the other characters and world to be just as richly conceived as Eli himself.
And when she does turn her attention to Eli, she ensures that he more than lives up to the enormous expectations built up around him. In some ways, he is reminiscent of the protagonist of Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora books, but whereas that legendary thief’s skills lie in his mastermind ability to think and plan and plot and, when necessary, improvise his way out of any situation, Eli’s strength lies in his empathy and the simple bonds he forms with creatures that most people wouldn’t even classify as creatures. The Spirit Thief is a remarkably strong and infinitely readable debut, and I highly anticipate future installments in the series.
The Spirit Thief will be released by Orbit Books in October 2010.