I'm sitting here, wrestling with how to begin this book review. I want to tactfully revisit an observation I've made in the past about my apparent gender preference when it comes to certain entertainment-related activities I spend my free time doing. In this case, reading fantasy books. I certainly don't claim to be the most well-read individual in the world, and I like to tell myself that I'm certainly open to reading female fantasy authors, and I've felt like I've given plenty of them a shot. I've read many novel samples, and a number of complete novels by female authors... but if I take a good look at, for example, the long list of books I've rated on Good Reads, of all the 4- and 5-star books on my list, only two are by females (NK Jemisin, and Susan Ee, both 4 stars). The numbers indicate a strong preference for male fantasists on my part, regardless of what I try to tell myself. I have my Top Ten Favorite Authors, and a Boy's Club it is.
However... there may be a new face breaking into the list, and he is a she. Rachel Aaron, creator of the wonderful character Eli Monpress, and the rich world in which he dwells.
The Spirit Thief, by Rachel Aaron
In a way, this is traditional fantasy at its finest. Eli is a supremely gifted, unorthodox wizard par excellence, naturally gifted in ways that other wizards can't even grasp, who decides to use his gifts to enrich himself instead of conforming to the expectations and systems of the rest of his peers. He's charming, witty, fun, powerful, selfish, and a peerless thief -- whose main goal, endearingly enough, seems to be to make the bounty on his head as large as possible, while lining his pockets with gold.
With him is a master swordsman named Josef, who wields the Heart of War (an "awakened" sword of great power) and Nico, a small girl who can channel immense otherworldly power. All three are being hunted by many people for many reasons, and together, they make a thoroughly memorable team. The Spirit Court is after Eli, not just because he's a law breaker, but because he gives wizards and spritiualists everywhere a bad name. Coriano is a bounty hunter who also wields an awakened blade, and is hunting Josef, coveting the Heart of War, wanting to take it as his own. And the League of Storms is after Nico, wanting her destroyed before she has a chance to unleash the fullness of her power. And against them all is Renaud, the King's erstwhile banished brother, who finally has a chance to lay hold of an ancient power that will allow him to enslave the world.
So, in a real way, a case can be made that these are traditional fantasy staples; nothing new under the sun. And yet, they are done so incredibly well that whatever lack there may be in originality is made up a hundredfold by the sheer enjoyment of the tale. And, really, a lot of people read fantasy novels for a reason; namely, to find and enjoy well-done tales just like this one, tropes and all.
The magic system is based around the idea that every item, every creature, everything has a spirit, and those who are gifted in magic can interact with these spirits and convince/coerce them into doing things for them. Eli can interact with spirits in ways that baffle other wizards. A spiritualist named Miranda has been tasked by the Spirit Council with finding Eli and bringing him to justice, and most of the story is told through her eyes. Tracking him down is one thing... joining forces with him against a greater evil was something she could never have fathomed.
As much as I enjoyed the story and the wonderful characters and the dialog, I believe what impressed me the most was something I alluded to in the review I did of Brandon Sanderson's The Emperor's Soul. In fact, Aaron reminds me a great deal of Sanderson. The feel, the undercurrent, the milieu of the story is light, and airy and wonderful. I wish I knew how to explain it.
In fact, in the story itself, a certain spirit is trying to explain to Miranda why Eli is so different from any other wizard/spiritualist, and he says something along the lines of, "it's hard to explain... it's like he's alive inside, he's full of light. And spirits are drawn to him, and feel compelled to try and please him." I think something similar (though admittedly less dramatic) can be said for this book. There's something alive inside of it, and light. And, to me, that obviously stems from the author, and her ability to dance across the page.
The story has no profanity or adult nonsense in it (another nod to Sanderson there). It's a rollicking adventure that I couldn't help but picture up on the big screen as I read it. Rachel Aaron has made quite an impression on me (ya think? lol), and I'm moving on in the series straight away. If she stays true to form (and I have no reason to doubt she will), then I have no problem letting her have a spot on my Favorite Author's List. And it wouldn't be a sympathy nod to make myself feel better re: gender.
Summary: 5/5 stars. I enjoyed the heck out of this book. Though it lacks the grit of Martin/Abercrombie, the beauty of Rothfuss, the depth of Hamerton, it retains (and in many ways surpasses) the sheer joy and adventure of Sanderson. This one's a keeper. I urge you to pick up the free sample chapters and try it. If you're not hooked hard (like I was) by the very opening scene, I'll eat my shoe.
You can get the first three books in the series (The Spirit Thief, The Spirit Rebellion and The Spirit Eater) in an omnibus edition for Kindle for $9 on Amazon. The Omnibus is called The Legend of Eli Monpress. Otherwise, the individual books are $7/each...