Review: The Spirit Thief by Rachel Aaron

spirit thief rachel aaron Review: The Spirit Thief by Rachel Aaron

Recent speculative fiction has trended towards the dirge-like in nature, delighting in delving deep into the execrable nature of humanity, taking pains to wallow melodramatically in all manner of ethical turgidity, and throwing all manner of dark and disturbing fare in the direction of the hapless reader. Freaks and abominations abound, and our moral shortcomings are painfully (and verbosely) highlighted through plots that take us through a veritable narrative morass of foulness. With speculative fiction famously being an inauspicious indictment of our times, its no surprise that some authors are turning to stories a little less grim and gritty, and a little more ribald and vainglorious. Rachel Aaron, with her uproarious debut The Spirit Thief, the first in a trilogy, is unashamedly a member of this small but powerful minority party.


With his perpetually raised eyebrow and sardonic grin, Eli Monpress is the type of fellow whose party youd love to crash, but who youd be loath to have visit your home. Your wariness, of course, would be valid on a number of levels: Eli is the sort of roguish know-it-all who would be impossible to eject from your home once he found his way into your liquor cabinet and your youngest daughters favour, and is also the type who would abscond with your most prized and irreplaceable possessionsjust for the heck of it. Thus, when Eli arrives in the kingdom of Mellinor, he decides that the best way to rise to incomparable notoriety is to nick off with the king himself. Needless to say, this is not an especially popular decision, and becomes even less so when Eli demands an, erm, kings ransom, thats well beyond the means of all of the kingdoms of the world combined (cue the Dr Evil-esque one billion dollars!). But Elis not-so-subtle methods catch up to him promptly enough, and he finds himself first in combat with, and then in cahoots with, the smart-talking and morally upright spiritualist Miranda, as he tries to put at stop to the cascading domino effect he has set into action, which involves fairly minor things such as an evil wizard prince with a Pinky-and-the-Brain-like intent to take over the world and a sea spirit rather determined to drown everyone within a twenty kilometre radius. All the eyebrow-raising, sardonic grinning, and grandiloquent repartee in the world cant help Eli now.

My thoughts

Ill be the first to admit that'The Spirit Thief, which at first glance has a lot in common with Scott Lynchs The Lies of Locke Lamora,'is rather a refreshing palate cleanser in between some of the fantasy-is-serious-fiction-too-damnit! fiction to which Ive subjected myself within the past year or two, and its certainly pleasant to come out of such a novel without feeling a rather odd urge to wash my hands (a side effect of reading too much weird fiction, steampunk, and stuff written bearded old men who have Tolstoy-like attitudes to women and minorities). Like Alex Kellers excellent Haywired (see our review)', The Spirit Thief combines a sort of anime sensibility with rip roarin 80s fantasy fiction of the likes of David Eddings (and more recent stuff by authors such as the lovely Karen Miller), and completely and utterly delights in doing so. Bad fantasy tropes are attacked (or exploited) with glee, dialogue zings back and forth like something out of a championship-level game of Pong, and the plot, after an oddly slow beginning, surges forward like a great wall of Uruk-Hai.

Aarons Mellinor, and the wider world in which it rests, is not especially unique or memorable, but it is competently constructed with a fairly strong internal logic and a magic system that is quite enjoyable to tease out. While the brevity of the novel precludes in-depth world-building, it does feel as though theres more to the world than that with which weve been presented, which is always a plus. In addition, although theres no great depth given to the various characters involved, with most filling fairly standard fantasy roles that might suffice in your standard D&D game but feel a little less acceptable in a novel, the joy Aaron takes in her major characters is evident. Although, admittedly, there is perhaps a little too much author love here, as rather than throwing narrative rocks at her characters, Aaron lightly tosses squishy toys their way instead: Eli, for example, demonstrates Houdini-esque abilities to escape from every situation, no matter how apparently insurmountable, 'without so much as raising a sweat. Or a finger. The smart-alecky ease with which he dodges situations such as impenetrable prisons, menacing prison guards, uber-powerful wizards and spiritualists, and water spirits who are rather more than just a mite irked does become a tad tiresome after a time, and as a result there is never a sense of there being a true challenge that must be overcome.

Given the above, one cant help but wonder whether the plot might be better centred around spiritualist Miranda, who, though demonstrably line-toeing in everything she does, at least works quite hard indeed to keep (literally) her head above water, and exhibits rather a bit more character growth by the end of the novel. Eli, in contrast, may have gotten his overly expressive eyebrow somewhat more under control, but his motivations remain sketchy, a fact that is problematic, given the importance of his actions as a catalysing force to the narrative. (Note, for example, that Elis alleged reason for setting in play this whole shebang is the dazzlingly infantile because I want a vast and impressive ransom on my head.)

This being the first of the trilogy, there is a sense that The Magic Thief is a sort of extended prologue, with Aaron working to find her feet in terms of both her world and her characters. This feeling is compounded by the relatively short length of the novel itself and also by the lack of the high-stakes complicating factor noted earlier. While the breezy style and witty jokes offer a good deal of light-hearted fun, they do tend to overwhelm the plot, and as a whole detract from, rather than add to, the characterisation.'Theres an odd sense of authorial ambivalence here, with the novel teetering strangely at places between feeling a touch too serious for its professed light-heartedness, and at other times a touch too light-hearted for some of the more sinister themes that crop up. Still, The Magic Thief is a solid debut likely to be devoured by fans of fun sword-and-sorcery fare, and is generally a solid holiday read.


The Magic Thief offers a light and enjoyable antidote to some of the more woe-is-me fiction cropping up towards the fantasy end of the speculative fiction spectrum. If youre after a quick and zippy read, you could certainly do worse, but those who tend towards a close reading of a text may find themselves a little underwhelmed by the subordination of plot and character to voice and style.

Rating: ?????

With thanks to Hachette Australia for the review copy

Purchase The Spirit Thief from Amazon | Book Depository UK | Book Depository USA

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