Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Solid but speedy (356 pages)
Publication: October 1, 2010 from Orbit
Premise: Eli Monpress is the world's greatest thief, and he's using his talents to deliberately drive up the bounty on his own head. His latest scheme is to kidnap the king of Mellinor
Warnings: minor gore
Recommendation: If you're looking for something light and witty with occasional dark moments and a solid groundwork for sequels, this one is a good bet.
What makes this one engaging and fun:
The Spirit Thief begins in fine style with the ever-persuasive Eli literally talking his way out of prison-- no guards would be willing to listen to him, but the door is. Nearly every object in the world has a spirit that can communicate with wizards, which means that a sufficiently skilled practitioner can influence the spirit into being helpful; this system is odd in places but allows for near-infinite variety of useful spirit interventions. Most wizards are limited to either coaxing spirits to serve willingly or using raw will and magic to enslave spirits into service, willing or not. Eli possesses a unique rapport with the spirits around him, and people on all sides of the debate about how spirits deserve to be treated scorn him for it, taking his lack of servant spirits for weakness. In a nice twist from the normal tropes about arrogant thieves, Eli doesn't care what any individual wizard thinks of him-- he has his goals and knows how to get results, and his methods often include things like sweet-talking a nearby rock in a way that even his allies see as somewhat ridiculous.
He's given an ideal hunter in Miranda, the representative of the Spirit Court assigned to stop Eli. His use of wizardry for gain is potentially harmful to the reputation of wizards everywhere, and Mellinor's treasury contains a mysterious artifact called Gregorn's Pillar. It's been there since the kingdom's founding and no one knows quite what it does, but it's generally agreed that Eli would use it to wreak some sort of havoc. Miranda respects the law of the land, but her devotion to the Spirit Court runs deeper because of the ethics involved. Members of the Spirit Court ask spirits to serve only willingly and with utmost honesty, so spirit-enslavers are anathema to her; Eli's blatant manipulation of the spirits to get what he wants, even when they aren't harmed in the process, strikes her as unfair, particularly when Eli's companion Nico scares them into obedience. Miranda and Eli both have the opportunity to present their arguments and battle out the differences in philosophy, making it impossible to paint Eli as just careless (though he is) or Miranda as overly devoted to the law and limited in her ability to understand other people's reasoning (which she is). These differences spark brilliantly when they're forced into an uneasy alliance, since their trust in each other goes only so far as each seeing the other as the least objectionable of the available options.
Eli intends to just blackmail the kingdom into providing a ransom that will go towards his bounty, but kidnapping Henrith ends up destabilizing the situation and endangering the kingdom at large in unanticipated ways. He acknowledges his role in the problem but feels no real investment in solving it until Miranda and his other companions pressure him into doing so . This breezy shamelessness succeeds where a similar tone in the The Giant Thief failed, in large part because the protagonists have different levels of experience and varying responses when people try to appeal to their better natures. Where Easie never quite seems to demonstrate the skills that gave him his reputation, Eli demonstrates in scene after scene that the rumors don't tell the half of it. It helps that while Eli lives beyond even his legend in some ways, a large part of his success comes from his companions, who have their own stories in a way that doesn't always work for sidekicks.
Josef Liechten travels with Eli because he possesses a living sword called the Heart of War, wants to become the finest warrior in the world, and sees traveling with Eli as the best way to attract dangerous bounty hunters and thus have excellent fights. He comes off as a fairly traditional stoic fighter on the surface and is reluctant to draw the living sword because he thinks that relying on it will make him lazy, but the sheer depth of his devotion that skill, to the point of accepting near-lethal wounds while he tries to use mundane weapons against another living sword. This comes to the fore when Josef encounters Coriano, wielder of Dunea, a living sword that wants a challenge-- Coriano and Dunea share Josef's zeal for testing and improving their skills. Like Josef, they're working with other people in order to put themselves in the way of the best possible opponent, and have in fact been seeking Josef for years. When the two fighters get down to business, there's no trash-talking or distraction; indeed, both fighters are ignoring their companions, and Eli in particular understands that while he plans and runs the mission, Josef is working with different goals and cannot be challenged on that point. The two try to fight and are interrupted at various points, but the final duel is a thing of beauty because they're both there for the love of their art and the ultimate test, not petty rivalries or for anyone else, and that reinforces the way that these people are autonomous, not just drones doing Eli's will with occasional witty grumbling as is all too common for small teams in this genre.
Nico travels with Eli because Josef is there; the two have some sort of history that makes her trust him implicitly even though has more raw power than he does when she chooses to use it. The dynamic is delicate and not explained overtly, but it's one of the novel's most compelling points and by far the element that seems most likely to play a major role in the sequels. Discussing Nico in much detail means spoilers, unfortunately, but suffice to say that she has a dark and somewhat sadistic sense of humor that makes her both scary and likeable. Miranda doesn't share that liking, and her reasons for that are entirely understandable, but the relationship between them shines. At first, Miranda seems right to fear Nico based on what she is, and then we see Nico and Josef being resigned or angry about the situation, making it seem as though Nico is experiencing unfair judgement. And then Nico lets loose to protect Eli and Miranda and it's obvious that while Nico in in many ways a good person, seeing her as a victim is a terribly dangerous mistake. Rachel Aaron plays well with expectations, especially here, to make Miranda's struggle to choose who to trust or choose the right path through a situation vivid and real.
Through it all, Miranda's own thoughts are respected: it's easy for thief-centric books to take the path of making the representatives of the law either evil or so sympathetic that they end up becoming full-on allies, but Miranda occupies a logical center. When Eli is the only threat, all of her resources are bent on taking him down, and her plans work quite well to surprise him until his backup plans go into effect. When he's the lesser of two evils, they can work together for a while until the threat is resolved and she promises to chase him again in just as deadly a fashion as before, even though she's inadvertently learned one of his methods for gaining enormous power . She has a few tone-deaf moments of feeling so stilted and constrained by her beliefs that it's hard to believe that she's been out in the real world, but she recovers quickly and has cemented her beliefs by living them. She's one of the few Spiritualists with a ghosthound, a magically gifted dog big enough to ride, and Gin trusts her after being rescued and serving as a respected friend. Gin and Miranda are equals, gifted in different areas, and that makes the brief conversation in which Gin threatens Eli for hurting Miranda absolutely great-- here's hoping that the ghosthound gets more pagetime in future books.
The red pen:
Eli's group and Miranda are so compelling that many of the other characters fall flat by contrast. This is particularly true of Renaud, the main villain. It's nice to see someone who's evil in a straightforward way and can fit the entirety of his vile machinations onto an index card, but his arc is terribly stale. He is King Henrith's older brother, and would have held the throne himself had his wizard powers not become public knowledge. Mellinor has barred wizards from the kingdom for centuries and refused to let one take the throne, so Renaud has defied his orders of banishment to stay in the kingdom and wait for a chance to seize power. If he becomes king, he'll have access to the treasury that contains Gregorn's Pillar, the artifact that Miranda is so desperate to seize from Eli. He just spends an inordinate amount of time posturing and talking about how powerful he is, and love her or hate her, the late Margaret Thatcher put it well: "Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't." The more Renaud struts and shouts, the more obvious it becomes that he's going to get cocky and then be taken down in the middle of a monologue, and it's just not interesting to read about a villain whose defeat feels so inevitable.
Renaud is unpleasant enough that it seems as though he ought to encounter some resistance to the way he takes control, but all the king's advisers and nobles couldn't muster the common sense to come in out the rain. They function based purely on traditional reflex, thinking that they've never been without a king from the royal line and thus can't make independent decisions if the king is captured or incapacitated. They try to turn away Miranda out of respect for tradition even though she may be the only one who can help, barely tolerating her presence. It makes sense for at least some of the nobles to function that way, but it's hard to believe that no well-liked duke is willing to jockey for position, or that no one has independent thoughts. Of all the people in the castle, only Marion (the librarian assigned to be Miranda's guide), wants to learn about wizardry or dig up old gossip, which makes the rest of Mellinor's elite feel like an ignorant faceless blob. This wouldn't have to be a problem, but it does make it hard to care whether the people of the kingdom live or die.
The book also suffers from distribution of points of view. As the plot races forward, the various segments tend to feel less distinctively linked to each character's voice. Eli's early pieces are playful and clever, laced with self-satisfied arrogance, but later on they fall into a flatter sort of worry. Miranda's first segments do a gorgeous job of establishing her wordview and priorities, not to mention her magical methods, but in later segments she often comes off as stiff verging on shrill in a way that doesn't work. The focus of each scene moves from character interaction to fighting, and that's a good thing for the plot, but it tends to mean that more is happening while you care less about the fate of the characters as individuals, if that makes sense. It doesn't go far enough to make the characters entirely flat, but it's a little disappointing to have the climax of the book be so flashy when some of the best emotional moments feel cut short to make for the next bit of the confrontation. A grand total of just a few more pages there might have made a difference--slowing down the pacing for a moment can be the kiss of death sometimes, but there's a fine line between keeping the action tight and rushing things so much that each event feels cramped.
All in all, The Spirit Thief is clever and funny and and engaging, exactly the kind of thing I want to read after a long week (and will probably end up rereading at the beach sometime). It's not perfect, but it hits the sweet spot of resolving some plot threads while leaving others open enough to stir up real curiosity about what's going to happen next. I read the preview for The Spirit Rebellion in the back of this book-- it gets at some of Eli's motivation for increasing his own bounty in a way that absolutely blew me away, so odds are good that I'll pick up the rest of the series at some point and cross my fingers for better villains next time around.
Prospects: This is the first book in The Legend of Eli Monpress. The fifth and final book in the series, Spirit's End, came out in November.
Enjoyed this? Try:
~If you're drawn mainly to Eli's powers of persuasion, genre-hop over to science fiction and try Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series. The name of the game here is "audacious web of lies."
No more recommendations for now, but fear not-- I have thief-and-rogue-centric books on the docket for the next few months.