Welcome to the first review in the “Down the Stacks” series. In “Down the Stacks,” I write about Fantasy and Science Fiction books I have read and which I believe deserve some time in the spotlight. For this first review, I’ve chosen the book series that takes the first position on my local library’s shelf by author name: The Legend of Eli Monpress, by Rachel Aaron.
The Legend of Eli Monpress is a five-volume fantasy series about the misadventures of the titular Eli, a self-styled Greatest Thief in the World who also happens to be a wizard, as he pursues his goal of raising his bounty above any other outlaws by pulling off impossible or outlandish heists and evading capture. Of course, things don’t always go as planned, and the combination of Eli’s magical abilities and the social status of his typical targets means he tends to get wrapped up in political corruption and world-rending catastrophes and as much as he may deny it, Eli is a hero at heart. Now, when I said “evading capture,” I only meant in the long-term, because for all of his skill and magic, Eli tends to end up in somebody’s custody at least once per book. In fact, the very first scene of the first book, The Spirit Thief, opens with Eli in a castle dungeon trying to talk his cell door into opening.
The world of Eli Monpress is rather small. There are only three, unnamed, continents, one of which is a frozen wasteland and one which we only get glimpses of in the fourth book. The third continent is partially covered in a myriad of small allied kingdoms with the rest given to great mountain ranges and bandit-infested forests. These kingdoms can be traversed in a matter of weeks or less, depending on one’s mode of transportation. The majority of the kingdoms are united into a Council of Thrones, an alliance originally forged to repel invaders from the other inhabited continent roughly twenty years prior to the events of the books and has since grown into a monolith of politics and economics headed by the Merchant Prince of Zarin. Each novel tends to focus around one particular kingdom, but the various plot threads can lead certain characters all across the map in search of information or one another.
Magic in Monpress’s world is not the usual conjuring of arcane forces or reciting spells, but rather more of a conversation with the world around you. Everything - rocks, rivers, trees, fire, wind, buckets, iron nails, tea cups, etc. - has an intelligent spirit that can be awakened, conversed with, and made to move and act. Only certain people have the ability to hear spirits and utilize their own spirit to compel or empower spirits to act on their behalf. For the most part, spirits tend to be lazy and inattentive to the world around them, so a successful wizard requires either charisma or a strong will to get anything done. When it comes to charisma, no wizard in the world has Eli Monpress beat.
Eli is a rogue in every sense of the word, armed with a silver tongue and an insufferable confidence that he exploits shamelessly. In his first scene, he convinces his cell door that the nails attaching it to the hinges and lock are an irritant and that it should let go of them, coincidentally allowing him to walk out of the dungeon with ease. His charisma is so great that spirits often bend over backwards to help him and keep quiet about his passing through if he asks them to. As charming as he is to spirits, Eli puts great effort into being as annoying to his fellow humans as he can get away with all for the purpose of getting proper credit for stealing national treasures. His aggravating attitude extends to his two partners in crime: Josef Liechten and Nico.
Josef is a swordsman who acts more as Eli’s bodyguard than anything else. While Eli is aiming to be the world’s greatest thief, Josef wants to be the world’s greatest swordsman, and to that end he carries an unholy number of swords, daggers, and knives on his person. One sword of his is worth particular mention: a pitted, scarred, black length of metal with no appreciable edge known as the Heart of War, the greatest awakened sword in existence. As an awakened object, the Heart of War’s spirit is capable of communication, but Josef is not a wizard and thus can’t hear it. There are times when Josef is obliged to leave behind at least a portion of his arsenal, but the Heart of War stays with him no matter what because, rather like Thor’s hammer Mjollnir, only Josef Liechten can move the sword. to anyone else, the Heart is as heavy as a mountain.
Nico is a young, quiet, painfully thin girl constantly wrapped up in a black hooded coat with iron manacles around her wrists, ankles, and throat, for everyone’s protection. Nico is what is known as a demonseed, a human who has become host to a fragment of an all-devouring demon. The demonseed gives Nico superhuman strength, enhanced senses, and the ability to leap from one shadow to another at the cost of slowly consuming her spirit and the constant threat that the seed will awaken and turn her into a rampaging spirit-eating demon. The manacles she wears are to to distract the demonseed from Nico’s own spirit and the coat hides her from those who hunt demons. Nico owes her life to Josef, and both Eli and Josef have undying faith in her ability to resist the demon within. For her own part, Nico helps Eli however she can while fighting her own internal battles.
Of course, we can’t have a story about a career criminal without somebody representing the law to chase after him. To that end we have Miranda Lyonette, a stubborn young member of the Spirit Court sent by her mentor to capture Eli Monpress for perceived crimes against spirits. The Spirit court, or Spiritualists, is a quasi-religious order of wizards sworn to protect the spirits of the world against Enslavement and other abuses, and Eli’s willingness to use spirits to succeed in his crimes is considered abuse. Spiritualists form partnerships with spirits, whereby the spiritualist feeds the spirits with their own energy in exchange for being able to call upon those spirits for help and protection. For the most part, these bonded spirits are stored in rings or other jewelry, but Miranda has a couple of exceptions. First is her ghosthound, Gin, a giant canine from the frozen continent that is more spirit than animal. Gin serves as Miranda’s mount, sometime protector, and the best source of information she has on how spirits see the world, although Gin often has difficulty putting his spirit-senses into words. Second is Mellinor, a Great Spirit of an ancient inland sea that Miranda meets and ends up having to bond with during the course of her first attempt to capture Eli. As a Great Spirit, Mellinor is too large to be contained in a gemstone, so he rests inside Miranda’s body.
As determined as Miranda is to capture Eli Monpress, her oaths as a spiritualist and general hatred of injustice of any kind always force her to put Eli on the back burner or work alongside him to right some bigger wrong, something that earns her a mixed reputation in political circles. She comes to be regarded as the foremost expert on Monpress, but also the butt of jokes and real criticism which she endures with patience.
Outside the central characters, there’s a fair-sized cast of recurring characters that help shape the reader’s pictures of the world and the important events that Eli’s gang and Miranda get wrapped up in. There’s Etmon Banage, Miranda’s mentor and the leader of the Spirit Court, a man who is more stubborn and uncompromising of his principles than his protege and refuses to let his Court become another political arm of the Council of Thrones despite both internal and external pressures. Supporting Eli, sort of, is Heinricht Slorn, a Shaper with the head of a bear and a vested interest in learning more about the nature of demonseeds. This interest makes him an outcast from the rest of the Shapers, who are a somewhat reclusive group of wizards who have mastered the art of making awakened objects under the tutelage of the Shaper Mountain, one of the oldest spirits in the world. Slorn and the Shapers often make awakened swords for the League of Storms, an organization devoted to tracking down demonseeds and killing them. The league is led by the Lord of Storms, a literal thunderstorm in the form of a man and the original demon hunter. The League is noted for their ability to pin awakened demons with the strength of their spirits alone and to travel vast distances in an instant by opening portals in the world. Both of these abilities are granted to league members by the Lord of Storms, who in turn received them from his mistress, the Shepherdess Benehime. The Shepherdess is a god-like being charged with the care of the entire world, including keeping the demonseeds in check. She's supposed to be all-loving, but has a particular interest in Eli Monpress.
While the scale of events in The Legend of Eli Monpress is never small - the first two books each end up overturning a whole kingdom’s worth of dark underbellies - the series progresses rapidly to problems of international and eventually global scale while still taking time to look into the pasts of the three anti-heroes, and the politics and dark secrets of the Council Kingdoms as a whole as they affect Miranda. The first book shows the reader a world full of imperfect people dealing the fallout of a less enlightened age when wizards were feared by men and spirits alike for their willingness to coerce spirits rather than work as partners, along with teasing hints regarding the powers that run the world. If it stayed that way it would have been a fine setting for fantasy capers, but each subsequent book shows that whatever is wrong with the world goes a little deeper than previously thought, then a little deeper, then deeper still, until you find yourself cheering for anybody who has enough guts to not stop asking questions or consider any course of action.
The characters all have stubbornness as a major trait, but they aren’t totally resistant to change and growth. Miranda and Eli change the least over the course of the series, but that’s because they both enter the series with a determination not to compromise their ideals. Miranda’s ideals of respecting the spirits of the world and defending them against abusers are laudable, and while she’s eventually willing to learn and admit when she’s wrong, that core ideal never goes away and makes every one of her decisions easy to understand and near impossible to disagree with. Eli starts off as looking like a selfish, self-important braggart with the distinction of actually being able to deliver on his promises one way or another, but as we learn more about his past and what he’s taking a stand against he becomes more sympathetic, but no less amusingly outlandish. Josef and Nico grow the most out of the main characters, since they confront the most grueling dangers out of the lot. Josef’s association with Eli and Nico coupled with his own fame as a swordsman leads him into many battles to the death against awakened swords, awakening demons, an entire army at one point, and the Lord of Storms himself, all of which he escapes only by virtue of the Heart of War’s bond with him. Nico has a literal inner demon to struggle against as it grows and taunts her, along with worrying about Eli and Josef’s safety and their reactions whenever her psychic struggle leaks out into the physical world.
The Legend of Eli Monpress is well-written overall, but in the last book the author suddenly develops an annoying tendency to mix-up the names of past antagonists when referring to events in the third book. The error is usually saying “Den,” a deadly and near-invincible fighter famous for betraying the Council during the big war and who shows up in the fourth book, to refer to either Berek Sted, a swordsman who hunts Josef in the second and third books, or Izo, a bandit king whose town serves as the main stage of the third book. I’m disappointed that those glaring continuity errors weren’t caught in editing, but in the larger scheme they don’t lessen the value of the series too much.
The first three volumes of The Legend of Eli Monpress are available in an omnibus of the same name, or separately as The Spirit Thief, The Spirit Rebellion, and The Spirit Eater. The final two volumes are The Spirit War and Spirit’s End. They clock in between 350 and 500 pages per volume, so you’ll need to devote some time to reading them. If you’re interested in light fantasy with a moderate and steady increase in stakes, mixed with humor, politics, and a palatable amount of moralistic preaching, track down some copies and start reading.