I first encountered Rachel Aaron on Twitter, and wrote a response to her posts here under the title, “Not A Practice, But A Game.” Since then I’ve had the good luck to read The Spirit Thief, the first in her The Legend of Eli Monpress series. It made me feel young again in all the best ways, a light-hearted adventure story perfect for long summer evenings.
The Spirit Thief is a grand dessert for those tired of the grimdark smorgasbord. It features heroes who are not only capable, but likable, villains whose cruelty doesn’t need to be hammered home with outrageous acts of violence, and a charming animistic magic system which lends itself to a swift and humorous (though only rarely comical) tone.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a mainstream fantasy hero who appeals to me as much as Eli Monpress, the quick-witted thief who uses empathy and charm to sway spirits to his will. This puts him at odds with both the Spirit Court (a guild of mages who contract with the spirit world for a power exchange) and the Enslavers (rogue magi who dominate those spirits). He is joined in his capers by Josef, the world’s greatest swordsman; and a young demonseed, Nico, of whom we learn very little in this first book.
To that point, we see little backstory for any of the characters. However, the story was quick and engaging enough to keep me more interested in their present troubles than their past adventures. I will expect to learn more in slow reveals through the next books in the series to keep me invested in their lives, and based on reviews of those books, I’m not concerned.
The plot of The Spirit Thief is straightforward, with hints of a wider mystery and overarching plot to come. This could be a flaw in a less well-written book, but again, the pacing, characterization, and sheer charm of Eli kept me involved.
My sole issue with the book came where it aimed for straight comedy as opposed to light-hearted adventure. That’s a question of personal taste, but those moments smacked to me of the formulaic laughs you see in films trying to appeal to both parents and children alike. They are few and far between, but each time, I was jolted from the otherwise enjoyable world Ms. Aaron has created for our enjoyment.
I highly recommend The Spirit Thief to any fans of high fantasy, high adventure, or light-hearted capers. It would be especially high on my list for any parents whose children are transitioning out of Young Adult fiction.
Skelly experiences an odd moment of bliss – an absurd sensation that all her life has led to this strange and singular moment. Ramping a jacked-up hell-quad over a dirge-singing pack of goblins with a burned-to-death stuntman at the wheel.
Seriously, if you don’t like those two sentences, you’re just not the quality of person I need in my life. Sorry, Aunt Dorothy.
That scene’s the soul of the book. It is fast, exciting, and left me breathless and flying more than once. It’s a quick and bloody read that blends action, crime, fantasy and comedy into a smoky, salty, satisfying whole.
Mookie Pearl is a bruiser with heart, wrapped up in a criminal underworld which seems to fit him fine. His job within “the Organization” involves interacting with the supernatural landscape that lies beneath New York City, in addition to breaking the legs and faces of more mortal nuisances.
Trouble comes to him from three sides in The Blue Blazes: His Boss is dying, the forces below are rising, and his estranged daughter has not only taken up with opposing gangs but is actively working to take over the Organization itself.
Wendig does a great job at crafting characters who are terribly flawed and yet eminently forgivable, people you love reading about but probably wouldn’t want to meet. Their motivations, for the most part, are clear and direct – which helps propel the book forward and provides great surprises when more slippery characters emerge. There’s not a single throwaway character in the book; even those who get a single scene like Skinny Rope are fleshed out and actualized to make you see and believe in them.
The supernatural landscape is composed of great set-pieces that are deftly described and eminently suited to the imagination, though they never detract from the characters or plot. This is not a meander-and-admire piece of world building, but is written with a cinematographer’s eye for showing you exactly enough to remind you that you’re not in Kansas anymore.
There’s also an excellent framing device in ‘The Journals of John Atticus Oakes,’ which provides a nicely Lovecraftian counterpoint for those of us who enjoy a little creeping horror in addition to their slam-bang action. While there’s further inspiration from Lovecraft at the dark heart of the book itself, the forces that are behind their actions don’t hide behind the “insane mad cultist” mask. They’re understandable, coherent, civilized, well-spoken and thoroughly sure of themselves.
By the end of the book, every character’s been changed by their trip through the wringer, and have dealt with the sins of their past – the central theme, as I saw it. It’s a thoroughly satisfying end with more than one twist in the final few pages.
Are there problems with the book? Sure, but they’re few and far between.
Aside from the Organization for which Mookie works, the gangscape of the Blue Blazes feels more like The Warriors than The Wire, which wouldn’t be a problem if the Organization weren’t meant to be taken so seriously. One gets the sense that the other gangs are kids at play rather than serious threats to law, order, or other gangs.
One of Wendig’s strengths is in his ability to describe brutality and violence. This is a fabulous thing in his books, but I sometimes wonder how the characters manage to survive at all. It’s harder to suspend your disbelief about the comic-book toughness of the heroes when the action is so evocative. Remember in Die Hard when John McLane walks barefoot across broken glass? Ramp that up and run it over several pages, and you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about.
Finally, there’s not enough charcuterie for my tastes.
That last sentence will make more sense once you read The Blue Blazes – and trust me, you want to. Ask for it at your local bookstore, or order it today.
Owl Dance is a thoroughly enjoyable steampunk western by David Lee Summers.
The heroes, Ramon Morales and Fatimah Kamiri, are no simple tropes. Morales is a short, bespectacled Mexican sherrif, while Fatimah is a Persian healer who has fled persecution in her homeland. It is wonderful to have characters removed from the usual chiseled lawman or drunken sawbones. Throughout the book, Summers introduces a wide and varied cast of characters.
I have to say that this wide-spread cast made the first few chapters felt a bit disjointed – less like a novel than a series of short stories which feature the same two protagonists – but as the book progresses, you can see the threads of the skein coming together in a very rewarding manner. By the end of the book, we’ve seen almost every character return to some level of prominence in a climactic battle for the Denver Mint involving pirates, Russians, ornithopters, bounty hunters, engineers, the US Army and Billy the Kid.
The central theme is one of patience and understanding – again, an unusual choice for a western, but one which gives the book real heart. None of the central characters are beyond redemption, instead looking to one another for a way to make a better life or, indeed, a better world. It was this heart that kept me reading, more than any other facet of the book. It may come across to cynics or self-proclaimed realists as less believable, but I felt its good-natured hope set it apart in an era where so many authors seem to exalt blood, savagery and darkness in their works.
The writing is occassionally a bit staccatto for my tastes. The sentences tend to be brief, pointing out individual facts, then moving to another, then another. I noticed this more near the end of the novel than the beginning, and at some points it did jar me out of the fantastic world. However, it’s a small quibble with an otherwise fine piece of work.
In short, Owl Dance is a truly fun read for any optimistic hearts who enjoy alternate histories. I recommend it!
“Ivan Ewert’s FAMISHED: THE FARM blends horror and Americana like a Texas cook blends spices. And just you wait ’till he starts the fire.” – Kenneth Hite, TOUR DE LOVECRAFT
“Ivan Ewert’s FAMISHED: THE FARM is some fun, old-school horror. Ancient gods, cannibalism, and more than a little madness. Ivan Ewert is a seriously twisted writer.” – Stephen Blackmoore, DEAD THINGS
Chuck Wendig’s BLACKBIRDS is a remarkable piece of urban fantasy. His protagonist, Miriam Black, has a gift and a curse: By touching skin on skin, she can see exactly how and when you are going to die. Presuming herself to be powerless against fate, she becomes a drifter living on cheap whiskey and superficial relationships until encountering a man whom she sees die under torture – whose last words are “Miriam?”
With that, she is involved in his life and death, no matter how hard she tries to extricate herself.
Sounds dark? It is, but without the absent nihilism that afflicts so much modern fantasy. In fact, I found it to be a story of redemption, of the triumph of human effort; although that triumph is painful and hard-won.
BLACKBIRDS is an urban fantasy, but firmly rooted in reality. Wendig lives in “Pennsyltucky” and deftly uses the region he’s familiar with. From Waffle Houses to the Pine Barrens, the landscape will be familiar and accessible to any modern American.
Its antagonists are equally realistic. Though they range from merely opportunistic to downright psychopathic, there are no vampires here, no werewolves, no angels or devils. Everyone in the book is human, and operates on human motivations such as greed, fear, or ambition. In particular, I found the character of Harriet, the housewife-hitman, both comical and chilling.
While Miriam’s “gift” sets her beyond the pale, she, too, is very human. She’s been through much before the book begins, and suffers more with every turn of the page. We learn more of her backstory throughout, in well-placed scenes that never lecture. Her life is woven into the book with a lighter touch than the hammering speed characteristic of the main story. She is a young woman from a troubled home who sees death wherever she goes and suffers for it, though she hides behind a mask of apathy and creative profanity.
That’s worth pointing out, by the way. I’m one of those who couldn’t watch DEADWOOD due to its constant cursing, and BLACKBIRDS carries plenty of its own. It didn’t bother me in Wendig’s book, however. It might be because of the novel’s modern setting, or because I was reading instead of watching – but I think it’s the fact that the swearing fit the voice and pace of the book so well.
Wendig writes in car-crash prose, swift and sharp. The sentences hook you and pull you along at a breakneck clip. There’s no time to worry about the number of blue streaks it takes to get you there, in my opinion; but I can see where it might turn a more sensitive reader away.
That same sensitivity may impact your reaction to the manifold scenes of death and torture, but see my primary note above: this is NOT a nihilistic book. Wendig isn’t gleefully dragging us into a pit. Rather he guides us, a modern Virgil, through scenes of growing darkness until allowing us to crash into a tense, sharp, and ultimately satisfying conclusion.
Mind, I won’t promise you a happy ending.
But I will call it wonderful, like the rest of this book. Highly recommended.