“Only a stupid man doesn’t respect his opponent’s strengths, and if there’s one thing Eli is good at, it’s never showing up when you want him and always showing up when you don’t.”
I stumbled upon this omnibus of the first three books in Rachel Aaron’s series (consisting of “The Spirit Thief”, “The Spirit Rebellion” and “The Spirit Eater”) a while ago at my local used book store, and it sounded like something that would be right up my alley so I decided to pick it up! The story centers around the series’ titular hero, Eli Monpress: a talented thief who also happens to be a very skilled wizard, and whose goal it is to acquire the greatest cumulative bounty the world has ever known. The book starts off with a bang as Eli succeeds in an especially risky heist: stealing the King, with the aid of his partners Josef: an adept swordsman, and Nico: a powerful demonseed with frightening magical abilities. They are pursued by a woman named Miranda, who is a representative of the Spirit Court intent on stopping Eli from tarnishing the name of upstanding magic users everywhere, but when Renaud: the King’s dastardly wizard brother, returns from years of exile to usurp his brother’s throne, she must reluctantly join forces with Eli and his team to help King Henrith reclaim his title and restore order to the kingdom. What follows is a story full of plenty of well-written action, entertaining banter/dialogue, unique magic and likable characters, but that is unfortunately held back by some repetitive narrative elements, pacing issues in regards to character development and cliches.
Eli himself was a very good protagonist. In a lot of ways he fulfilled the role of your standard charming thief, but I think the way that Aaron incorporated magic into his character and skill-set helped to distinguish him from the countless other characters who fulfill this archetype across the fantasy genre. It’s fairly common that these roguish sort-of thief characters rely on their wit, cunning and physical combative skills to accomplish their goals rather than magic, so it was interesting to see a thief who embraces wizardry to achieve his ends and how the author is able to incorporate that into the already complex machinations of a heist story. Just as he is so-often easily able to charm the people and spirits who surround him, its very easy to like Eli as a reader. He has a good balance of wit, humor, mystery and seriousness to him and while I don’t think he offers anything groundbreaking as far as this type of protagonist goes, he was still a lot of fun to follow. Miranda was also quite enjoyable, and avoided succumbing to many of the irritating tropes that female fantasy heroines so often fall prey to… but not all of them. She was stern and no-nonsense when it came to her work, but also good-humored and flexible in adapting to new situations and people. However, she also has a somewhat annoying habit of seemingly losing all combative capabilities when faced with a real threat, and as a result could rarely accomplish much on her own in a fight despite being a highly skilled magic user. She also has a lot of that stereotypical snarky banter with Eli that is so common is these stories where the main couple initially dislikes each other, but I admire Aaron for showing restraint in not immediately forcing them together as is so often the case in fiction with romance. Oh also, she had a giant talking spirit wolf that she rode on… and I loved him. Josef was probably my favorite character… but I can also admit that that may be due in-part to the fact that I notoriously have a soft spot for the “right-hand man who provides the muscle” sort of characters who are so pervasive in these sorts of books. For whatever reason they always seem to provide just the right amount of heart, dry humor and complete lack of shit-taking from the protagonist to tickle my fancy, and Josef was no exception. I was becoming frustrated with the lack of development for Nico’s character in the first two books of this omnibus, but she really got to shine in “The Spirit Eater”, and the relationship between her and Josef is probably my favorite of the series thus far. I also really enjoyed Renaud as an antagonist, even though he was so stereotypically conniving that half the time I pictured him mechanically twirling a mustache as he enacted his schemes. He was deviously clever in his plot to usurp the throne, and much in the same way that Eli was easy to root for, Renaud was easy to hate… but in a good way!
An aspect of these novels that I really liked was Aaron’s unique take on wizardry and magic. Typically when I think of wizards I think of spell casting and things of that nature. However in this series, wizards are individuals who can communicate with spirits and harness their abilities, with some forming peaceful contracts or servitude with them, and others able to completely control them against their will… and in this world spirits exist in almost everything, from animals and weather to inanimate objects like doors. Each spirit has its own unique personality and it made for some very fascinating passages that ranged from funny and light-hearted to totally terrifying. The third book especially did a good job at expanding this type of lore and magic even further and I really enjoyed seeing the various ways it was played with.
Each of the books individually weren’t very long, and thus I thought the pacing was actually pretty decent in terms of keeping things moving along, but when read as a whole in this omnibus format, some patterns began to emerge that were hard to ignore. Certain plot elements began to feel repetitive as the series went along, it progressively seemed as though the main characters could survive anything so I never really felt any real sense of danger or suspense for them, and the main cast didn’t have quite as strong of a bond as I personally would have liked. I mentioned this in my review of “Fool’s Gold” by Jon Hollins, but I find that stories like this really benefit from strong casts with good chemistry and strong emotional ties and while I certainly felt that these people were friends, I never got that next-level sort of connection between them that I hoped I would. That being said, I want to give props to the quality of the writing itself. Again, I don’t think it was necessarily doing anything groundbreaking, but I think it did exactly what it had to for a story like this. It was fun, light, energetic and knew when to appropriately darken and elevate itself to offer contrast, and it made for an engaging and pleasantly easy read.
I understand that it probably isn’t fair that I’m reviewing all three of these books collectively, and perhaps if I find the time and motivation I will return to this series and review them individually on a more in-depth level, but dammit this is how I found them, this is how I read them, and this is how I’m going to review them (for now at least). This review definitely focused more on the details of the first book (“The Spirit Thief”), as I wanted to try to avoid any potential spoilers for integral plot points between the novels, but like I said, I may come back and review the others with more detail at a later date to amend said issue. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m dying to read the next installment in this series, but if I happen to come across it in my travels I’ll probably pick it up! It was a very entertaining series of fantasy adventures with a solid main cast, interesting magic, exciting thievery and fun writing, and despite my criticisms I’m glad I picked it up. 3.5/5