Title: The Legend of Eli Monpress
Author: Rachel Aaron
Nutshell: Eli Monpress is the world’s greatest thief, and today he has stolen a king. It might be the king of the smallest country in the Council of Thrones, but it’s still the most important person in the country. He and his companions — a swordsman with the greatest magical sword ever and a scrawny shadow child — have big plans for the king. Big plans.
Miranda Lyonette is a wizard from the Spirit Court. Her job is to rein in rogue wizards, such as Eli Monpress. She seems to have arrived in the middle of a bit of a crisis, however.
Add to the mix the King’s long-since-banished brother, and a wizard of the most despicable kind. He wasn’t expecting his brother to be stolen, but you can bet he’ll make the most of it.
Rachel Aaron sets up her characters like a chemist, and then ever so carefully and precisely spills them all together and lets them blow each other up.
Readalikes: I think of Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera when I read this, and Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. The coverquotes on the book itself suggest Scott Lynch, but Lynch’s books are a lot darker than Monpress.
It’s interesting to note that Rachel Aaron is also the author of Nice Dragons Finish Last, which I read before this and is self-published. This is interesting because Eli Monpress was published first. When I started this book, I thought that Nice Dragons was her first project, and she snagged a traditional deal because of that. I felt as thought Eli Monpress was more refined, more polished, and discovering that it came before a very well written book made me question whether I had internal biases that hindered my reading. Did Nice Dragons seem less polished because it was less nicely bound? Was there a genuine difference in editing? Or was Monpress just polished to a standard I’m familiar with, and Nice Dragons was less ‘normalized’ when it was edited? I can’t even tell you. I am going to seek out more self-published works, though, so that if I do have a slight bias, I can pressure it out of existence.
That said, I REALLY liked this book. Technically there are three in the volume; it’s a collection of the first three in a five-book series. (Pentet?) The first book is Adventure Fantasy, with a caper, but the second and third shade subtly from Adventure to Epic, as neatly as you please.
The characters are what make the book, but since it’s hard to talk about the characters (characters always reveal better in the actual narration) and a major component of their interaction is linked to the magic system, I’m going to talk about the magic system.
I’ve seen the “everything has a spirit/soul/consciousness” routine before. The two examples I actually remember are in the readalikes. In Codex Alera, the spirits of everything are animalistic and non-sentient. In Stormlight, they have varying degrees of sentience. In Eli Monpress, EVERYTHING is sentient. Everything has opinions and concerns and personality. On the other hand, the majority of the people can’t hear or interact with them. The ability to speak with the spirits of everything is what makes you a wizard.
It makes for a fascinating dynamic. Monpress, for example, is able to pull his capers in part because of his communication with whatever he’s burgling. Sure, he can pick locks, but he can also convince doors to let go their nails and free him from prison. He can ask floorboards not to squeak, or windows to keep lookout. It’s very useful.
Contrasting his easy-going, charming self is Nico, his demon-child. This is not an exaggeration. She literally carries the seed of a demon inside her, which will eventually break out and destroy the world. In the meantime, it terrifies any spirit that comes in contact with her, making her relationship with the spirit world a much darker one. Especially since she can eat anything.
In between, or perhaps on an entirely different scale, is Josef the swordsman. He’s pretty much along as the muscle, on the grounds that the world’s most notorious thief is likely to get into some pretty spectacular fights. (This shouldn’t be true. Thieves should keep a very low profile. But Eli is far too dramatic of a thief, and so they actually do get into some spectacular fights.) Josef also, incidentally, carries the most powerful sword in the world, so sometimes they get into fights on his account.
I don’t want to say too much about where the second and third books go, because Mrs. Aaron does a beautiful job with them. Suffice it to say: she doubles down on the magic, doubles down on the heroes’ pasts, and goes all in with the world, without losing the cheerfully eager style that makes the first book so much fun.