In the opening scene of The Spirit Thief, Rachel Aaron’s charming debut novel, the notorious thief Eli Monpress is trying to escape from the royal dungeon of Mellinor. Since he’s not just a thief but also a wizard, he does this by quite literally trying to charm the dungeon’s door into opening: not by casting a spell on it, but rather by persuading, cajoling and wheedling it into letting him through, explaining that it really would be much better off without those annoying nails keeping it together (which results in the memorable line “Indecision is the bane of all hardwoods.”).
After all, in the fantasy world of THE LEGEND OF ELI MONPRESS, every single object, from the tiniest pebble to the largest mountain, has a spirit. A wizard’s power derives from the ability to enter into a mutual contract with these spirits, although others, on the more evil side of the spectrum, actually enslave them. Eli, uniquely, seems to be able to just talk them into doing what he wants. This may be a familiar magic system in fantasy, but it’s used here in such a charming and often funny way that you’ll barely notice.
The plot of The Spirit Thief revolves around a few central characters, and if most of them lack depth, they’re at least consistently entertaining. The wizard thief Eli Monpress initially confuses everyone (including the reader), because his goal isn’t, as you might expect, stealing Mellinor’s treasure. Instead, he merely wants to become more notorious so his bounty is raised — or possibly raise his bounty to become more notorious. Either way, he’s definitely not your standard criminal. Miranda is a powerful Spirit Court wizard who, along with her giant ghosthound companion, has been dispatched to Mellinor to deal with Eli, partly because he is giving wizards everywhere a terribly bad name and partly because he may be looking for an ancient magical artifact with terrifying powers. Mellinor’s King Henrith is initially elated to have caught Eli so he can collect the already sizable bounty, but soon finds himself kidnapped by his former prisoner in order to increase that bounty even further. Finally, Eli has two companions: Josef, the mysterious swordsman with his even more mysterious sword, and Nico, a girl and “demonseed” who seems to have mysterious and terrible powers…
The Spirit Thief is in some ways an old-fashioned sword and sorcery novel that focuses on Eli Monpress, the roguish wizard thief who’s out for adventure, fame and personal gain with his companions. The tone of the novel is so light that it’s almost breezy, mainly because it’s filled with lots of funny interactions like characters bickering or sending each other dirty looks even during the most stressful moments. Despite the action-packed plot, there’s lots of unabashed silliness in this story — which you probably would have guessed, given that the first scene features someone in a deep conversation with a door.
If the book has one problem, it’s that it’s hard to pin down its tone. After the first few pages, I felt like Rachel Aaron was going for very early Terry Pratchett, focusing on jokes at the expense of a serious plot. However, the plot takes form once the (true) villain takes the stage, and Eli’s world takes shape as an edge of darkness creeps in.
Most of the events happen within a mile or so of Mellinor’s palace, which gives The Spirit Thief’s story a deceptively small scale because there are plenty of references to larger powers and events that are only hinted at in this first novel. Still, because of this story’s smaller scope and the relatively short length of the novel, it sometimes feels like an elaborate prologue for the rest of THE LEGEND OF ELI MONPRESS.
If Rachel Aaron can expand the scope and impact of the series without sacrificing its sheer fun and readability, THE LEGEND OF ELI MONPRESS could prove to be a winner. As it is, The Spirit Thief is a light but charming and highly entertaining novel that definitely piqued my interest for the next book, The Spirit Rebellion, due out from Orbit in November 2010. If you’re traveling over the holidays and looking for something quick, light and fun to read on the plane, this fast-paced and cheerful little novel would be a great choice.