Eli Monpress is a thief with one goal in life: to have his bounty reach a million gold. In a world where one third of that is a kingdom’s entire income, this is a significant and difficult ambition. But the confident wizard-thief is undeterred, and with the help of a swordsman wielding the magic sword Heart of War and a young girl with the soul of a demon, he aims to increase that bounty significantly by kidnapping the king of Mellinor. But as in all caper stories, things go swiftly awry, and Eli must ally with Miranda, the very woman who has been hunting him for the Spirit Council for years, when a wizardly usurper steps into the political void left by Eli’s heist.
Rachel Aaron’s debut novel, The Spirit Thief is fun fantasy. She has a lighthearted, fanciful storytelling style that will likely get her labeled as an “escapist” writer, but that this reviewer found to be reminiscent of the tales of David Eddings. Aaron wants to entertain the reader with a delightful romp of a tale, providing comfortable tropes, wry humor, and a fast pace that have you finishing the book before you even realize it.
This is not to say that Aaron is unoriginal. She has a magic system based on the “spirit” in things (i.e. rocks, moss, wind, fire, swords, etc.) that is fairly unique. In her “magic” system, certain humans have the ability to speak to and manipulate spirits. Some of these humans take the high road (the Spirit Council and Miranda), and partner with spirits of things for mutual benefit. Others dominate the spirits, forcing them to their will, such as the wizardly usurper Renaud. And then there is the third way, Eli’s way, which is left fairly vague in the story, but seems to be a type of friendship, or at least a powerful charisma that requires no pacts or enforcement of will. It makes for an interesting and lively magical system, one which is the crux of the novel and its best contribution to the literature of the fantastic.
Eli is the trickster character, a Loki, who has a wry humor, a self-confidence bordering on arrogance, and a streak of goodness in him tempered by his thieving nature. He is not an overly complex character but his is a very appealing one. Miranda, on the other hand, is a paragon of virtue, or at least so she would like to think, and while she wants what is right and good, she is bound by the strictures of law. For Eli, character growth comes in the form of heroics, and for Miranda, it is her ability to work with the very man she was sent to arrest for the good of the Mellinoran kingdom.
The story is quickly paced. Right from the beginning we are thrust into the middle of Eli’s caper. The story is told in third person for the most part, so introspective navel-gazing is kept at a minimum. Miranda and Eli provide the majority of the character perspectives, and their two plot lines interweave each other until they culminate together in a massive final battle.
That final battle is also partly what makes this story such fun reading. Just when you think it is over, Aaron tacks another problem for Eli and Miranda to solve, each successive villain being greater and more powerful than the last. Swordfights, magic duels, a demon, and the power of the elements all combine in a climax that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
The Spirit Thief is a work of sword and sorcery that will appeal to readers of Jim C. Hines, Karen Miller, Jon Sprunk, and Piers Anthony. It is a thrill ride of a novel, delightfully amusing, based on an original magic system, without all the lengthy character building of the larger epics. I loved it, and fortunately, Orbit is releasing the three books in the series within a few months of each other, so readers will not have long to wait for the next exciting adventure of Eli Monpress.