The Legend of Eli Monpress by Rachel Aaron (Orbit, 2012) p.949
The Legend of Eli Monpress is the omnibus edition of Rachel Aaron’s brilliant debut trilogy which follows the adventures of the eponymous hero thief, Eli, his two companions, Josef and Nico, and their dogged pursuer, Miranda. The trilogy is comprised of The Spirit Thief, The Spirit Rebellion and The Spirit Eater, each published in 2010 by Oribt. Thankfully these novels far surpass the tedious, stereotypical sounding blurb and the garish individual covers. Monpress is anything but a boring, by-the-numbers foray into a fantasy heist adventure; this is a trilogy well worth reading.
The titular hero, Eli Monpress, is an irrepressible thief, and apparently motivated, not by greed, but by a desire to become the most infamous thief in the world with the largest bounty ever offered. Yet this only touches on his much deeper motivations and fascinating back-story that are hinted at and slowly revealed by Aaron over the course of this first trilogy. Eli’s character becomes increasingly complex and rounded over time while remaining consistent and likable. His darker characteristics are countered by his optimistic outlook and cheerful demeanour. His capers both entertain and provide structure for the narrative without overshadowing the broader story.
This same thought and consideration on Aaron’s part can be seen in Eli’s companions, the taciturn Josef Liechten and the tragic Nico. Josef could have simply been the bodyguard to Aaron’s hero, but she gives him his own mission, his own story and his own character. A swordsman who wields the world’s most powerful magical sword, the Heart of War, Josef travels with Eli as a means to find challenging duels and chances to prove himself. Eli is not adverse to taking advantage of this situation, but the mutually beneficial relationship again illustrates Aaron’s command of her world and narrative. This is not some plot driven need or convenient story function, Aaron neatly creates a natural rationale and convincing backstory for the pairing. The relationship between Josef and Eli, while that of friends and companions, is not without tension and incident lending yet more veracity to the tale.
The demonseed, Nico, adds an element of tragic darkness to the group. A young girl who has a demon growing inside her, Nico possesses supernatural abilities that complement the group dynamic and further their spectacular heists. However, it is the very darkness inside her that makes her stand apart from other fantasy characters of this ilk. Her life is a constant struggle against her inner demon, literally. It struggles for supremacy, threatening to overwhelm her personality and destroy everything she cares for. As a result she is both a great fantasy character to read, as well as a fascinating literalised metaphor for reader and critic alike to engage with. The potential danger posed by Nico, to both the world at large as well as her companions, cuts through the potentially stereotypical appearance of the group and demonstrates Aaron’s attention to detail. Indeed, in addition to the narrative tension that Nico’s very existence adds to the stories, her nature also adds to the world building and provides several plot hooks and developments.
The last major character of note is Miranda Lyonette, the Javere to Eli’s Valjean. Miranda, a Spiritualist (mage), has been set the thankless task of pursuing Eli in order to bring him to justice. At once Eli’s implacable adversary, Miranda is also a significant point of view character and provides a welcome broadening of the perspective. Aaron deftly weaves Miranda’s backstory and motivations into the story, and her companion spirits, including a sardonic magical ghosthound named Gin, flesh out her narrative sections. While an embodiment of duty, law and order, Miranda’s character is rounded-out with a sense of practicality and pragmatism as well as a healthy dose of common-sense. Miranda provides another view of Eli and forces the reader to reconsider Eli’s actions from a different perspective. This combines to both widen and deepen the world for the reader and to provide tantalising glimpses of the broader fantasy setting. The exasperated frustration Miranda feels in her pursuit of and interactions with Eli supplies comedy and drama in equal portion and adds to the narrative verisimilitude.
The world Aaron has created is rich, textured and beautifully rendered. Her world-building is both intricate and delightful. In particular, the ‘magic system’ of spirits feels innovative, inventive and intuitive. Every object, plant, animal and natural feature possesses a spirit. These spirits can be bargained with, commanded, manipulated and coerced by wizards (Spiritualists) in order to create magical effects and perform incredible feats. An ancillary benefit is that they also provide a host of secondary characters and some of the novels most memorable scenes. One of the earliest examples can be found in the first chapter of book one, in which Eli literally charms the door of his prison cell into letting him go. “Indecision is the bane of all hardwoods.” It is this sense of fun and humour that permeates the entire trilogy.
This balancing of elements reveals the strength of Aaron’s writing as there are few aspects of these stories that appear ill-thought out or only partially considered. For a debut fantasy trilogy this is almost unprecedented. Aaron’s world is both familiar and unique. A party of adventurers touring fantasyland stealing treasure and getting into fabulous scrapes is hardly groundbreaking, but this very familiarity simply eases the reader into the world and setting Aaron has created. No doubt the subject matter of Aaron’s trilogy will invite comparisons to Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series, yet Aaron has written something which reads as fresh, inventive and unique.
This trilogy is suitable for adults and children alike, and will also entertain both audiences. The Adventures of Eli Monpress is the rarest of creatures, an almost pitch perfect fantasy trilogy. It is a welcome antidote to the plethora of dark, gritty and violent fantasies dominating the market and it possesses enough heft to engage the brain as well.
(Originally reviewed in Vector)