The Spirit Thief (Rachel Aaron, The Legend of Eli Monpress #1)

4 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
The Spirit Thief is a fairly traditional fantasy romp emphasizing fun and excitement over depth and character building. This is the first in a series, but most of the characters come already fleshed out with at least allusions to fairly extensive backstories. I enjoyed this book; the setting is mostly just traditional medieval style fantasy, but the magic system and mythology were at least fairly distinctly setting specific. Maybe it is due to the fact that this book serves to begin a series, but I felt like the story could have used a bit more work. It feels a bit like the author has the characters up on a shelf like toys, takes them down to play with a bit, then carefully picks them up and puts them back to pretty much the in exact same place they were when the story started. I prefer a bit more character development lasting from book to book other than literally “Oh darn my favorite coat got ripped.” The villain just sort of pops up out of nowhere and doesn’t feel nearly as fleshed out as most of the other characters. I would still say this book does a great job as a fun romp and would recommend it for that, but I feel like there is quite a bit of untapped potential here which disappoints me a bit.

Greater Detail:
Eli Monpress is part of a gang of master thieves. When they attempt to kidnap a king in a small kingdom, things get complicated as the king’s long lost brother appears to take over the kingdom and turns out to be a maniacal magical madman. Eli and his friends soon find themselves obligated to correct their mistake and try to return their kidnapped king and kick the pretender off the throne.

I got a very incorrect impression of this book until about halfway in. The author presents the protagonist as a criminal mastermind who has plans within plans and is always three steps ahead of his opposition. I would have loved that protagonist and greatly enjoyed that book. Unfortunately, there really aren’t ever any great plans, and despite other characters talking about how clever and manipulative the protagonist is, he actually just behaves like a super powered thug who no one ever really has a chance against based on his raw power. To borrow from the DC comic book universe, I was expecting a Lex Luthor style super genius who carefully plans out every aspect of an operation, and I instead got an evil Superman who can effortlessly beat anyone up and chooses to rob banks and cause trouble for no reason other than that he is a big jerk.

It is kind of strange that the rest of the cast who seem to be regular characters in the series are actually a lot more interesting than the superpowered bully protagonist. There is a spiritualist who is pursuing Eli who I found quite relatable and liked. Eli’s companions are also worlds better as characters than he is. They have interesting backstories and discernable relatable motivations other than a desire to prey on the comparatively helpless. I would be much more likely to read further books in the series if I found out that they featured more prominently and the title character took more of a back seat.

Other than the morally bankrupt, somewhat uninteresting title character, the rest of the book was really quite good. The setting is consistent and interesting. The story feels a little slapped together and doesn’t really seem to advance the characters anywhere from where they start, but it moves well and at no point are you questioning the character’s plans. The heroes actually have a remarkable amount of agency for this genre. They decide to do things for their own motivations rather than beng completely reactive to others, and this was very refreshing.

Comparisons to Other Authors:
This book reminded me a bit of Robert Lynn Asprin’s Myth series, starting with Myth Adventures. The Myth series is a bit more comedic in tone, but the protagonist manages to be powerful without coming off as a bully, which is a big plus in my opinion.

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