The Legend of Eli Monpress is a series of five novels and one prequel novella, written by Atlanta native Rachel Aaron over a span of seven years and published by Orbit from 2010 to 2013, available in both hardcopy and Kindle and Nook digital formats. The first three books of the series were republished as a single omnibus edition titled The Legend of Eli Monpress. The series has been favourably compared to Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora (2006), owing to the shared "otherworldly Renaissance" urban fantasy settings and the fact that each has a master thief as its titlular character.
In Aaron's story universe, everything has- or rather is- a spirit. This includes every inanimate object, down to a wooden door and the nails which hold its hinges in place. Some humans are wizards and have the ability to communicate with and command spirits, binding them into service. Eli Monpress is a wizard and a thief (the greatest thief in the world, by his own insistence), with the unconventional habit of not bothering to command spirits, when he can just as easily ask them to do him a favour. He is so good at this that the first the reader sees him in action, he is charming a prison door into letting him walk free. Eli travels the world with two companions: Josef, a swordsman who seeks to be the best there is, and Nico, a young girl whose dark and bizarre personal history frequently becomes a thing of some concern for her traveling companions.
On the other end of the legal spectrum is another wizard, Spiritualist Miranda Lyonette, who has been assigned the dubious task of apprehending Eli- a matter of grave concern for the Council of Thrones, as Eli's already incredible bounty grows steadily closer to one million gold standards, a sum totaling more than the wealth of the entire continent.
Prequel Novella: Spirit's Oath
This short work introduces the reader to Miranda's early years as an oath-bound Spiritualist of the Spirit Court, and we learn the story of how she met one of her partner spirits. The explanation of the spirit world is very cursory, glossing over things which the first novel covers thoroughly, so I personally recommend reading this immediately after the first novel, to get the most out of it.
Book 1: The Spirit Thief
The first novel is a delightful crash course in the surface workings of the world where Eli and Miranda live. It is full of action and excellent humour, and while it does a superb job of setting up the foundation work for all the subsequent books, it also works very well as a stand-alone read.
Book 2: The Spirit Rebellion
In this book, we start to really discover some of the darker elements of Eli's world, and the themes of choice, power dynamics, and free agency, already addressed by the prequel and the first novel, are brought into even sharper focus here. This trend of growing continually darker and more centered on these themes will only increase for the next three books, but it is well done and not heavy-handed. This book also brings a better understanding of the political dynamics within the Spirit Court and among spirits themselves, both of which will be increasingly relevant in subsequent books.
Book 3: The Spirit Eater
The darkness addressed in the last book begins to take root meaningfully in this book, and while the good humour remains, and the main characters are ever more sympathetic, complex, believable, and creatively developed, this book was not designed to leave the reader feeling comfortable by the end. Unlike the prior two books, which can stand alone fairly well due to how they wrap up, this book leads very strongly into the next: once it picks up momentum, there is no stopping the sheer force of the plot. Every conflict is tense, every twist unexpected and yet perfectly foreshadowed by the previous books. We learn a lot more about Nico, and in places it is positively heart-wrenching, even when the tone is triumphant.
Book 4: The Spirit War
This book brings everything together which happened in the previous three, carrying home the significance of every event which has transpired to this point. Josef's past becomes a point of major significance, and distant threats mentioned in book 1 come surging to the fore, as if to say, "Had you forgotten us?" The interdependence of the human and spirit worlds increases, and what had been a snowball becomes an avalanche.
Book 5: Spirit's End
I'll be blunt here: when I got to this book, I had no idea how the author planned to wrap up the series in just one book, but I also could not fathom what the author would need to pull out of thin air to fill 560 pages. I was more than pleasantly surprised to find that Rachel Aaron not only still had countless tricks left up her sleeves (and Eli Monpress up his!), but that every single trick and twist was based in things which had already been introduced to the story as foreshadowing in the very first book. The seamlessness with which everything is connected, twisted, and resolved at the end took my breath away, and for the first time in a long time, I felt like I had finished a book series exactly where it needed to end- not a bit too early or too late, too drawn-out or too cut-off. I closed the book with a pleased nostalgia for the story world I had just exited, not feeling that my time there has been wasted for even one moment, or stretched or compressed in such a way that I would be too eager or sorrowful to leave it. Aaron's pacing is the best I have read in the last year, and the conclusion of the series is a testament to her skill, as well as a boon to readers of urban fantasy.
This series is low on bullshit and high on thematic depth and replay value. Abuse, relativistic morality, human (and spirit) rights, free will, and self-determination all have a huge part to play in the series, and the author confronts them in a very earnest and respectful way, using the characters to demonstrate the complexities involved in these themes, without allowing the characters' personalities to be subsumed into an authorial Aesop. The story plays out much like the monomyth, but which character represents the "hero" can change from moment to moment, and frequently there are multiple monomythic archetypes overlapping and subverting one another, and heroes set in conflict with each other because of different priorities and moral attitudes. The author clearly knows what she is doing with these tropes, and it is this intelligence which weaves throughout the books and keeps the series from degenerating into just another half-assed Harry Potter or Wheel of Time look-alike, or a weak homage to Tolkien. As always, Your Mileage May Vary, but this series gets five stars from me, and I will be looking out for more by this author.