Review: The Spirit Thief

The Spirit Thief, by Rachel Aaron

I wanted to like this book. I really did. It’s a caper, see, and capers are both totally awesome and relatively rare (probably because it’s so hard to do a good one). It’s also fantasy, and the only thing better than a caper is a fantasy caper — just ask Scott Lynch.

But… Well, it just isn’t a great book. It has potential, but that potential is mostly squandered. It could have used more editing (more on this in a minute), but that’s almost incidental; the book’s main flaw is that its cast is just not likeable.

See, the main character of this book is your standard-issue charismatic sweet-talking master gentleman thief, Eli Monpress. But it runs into the problem all such stories encounter, which is that you can’t really spend much time in such a character’s perspective without damaging the smooth, invincible confidence that makes them compelling. So you need a secondary protagonist, someone whose head you can occupy and observe the thief’s antics without getting too close to their thoughts. In this book, that role is held by (mostly, but see below) Miranda, the standard-issue straight-laced, duty-bound, clever-but-not-quite-clever-enough cop who is chasing Eli and trying to bring him to justice.

Now, I was really hoping I’d like Miranda. I haven’t had much taste for anti-heroes since I left behind adolescence — these days, I prefer that my heroes be actual heroes, worthy of the audience’s favoritism. Miranda has cool magic powers, a giant ghost dog, and is the only character in the novel who is consistently in the moral right, so I was all set for her to be my favorite.

If only she weren’t such a bitch.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that something like 80% of this novel is Miranda either being a smug, arrogant, self-centered asshole to everyone or getting smacked down by other characters for it. (She’s also inept; did I mention that?) I lost count of the number of times a variation of this conversation popped up:

Random character: Here is a clue, piece of information, or bit of advice that could possibly help you solve the ongoing mystery or avoid future difficulties.

Miranda: This information is not immediately relevant to me, so I’m going to ignore and eventually forget it. Instead, I’ll be unnecessarily bitchy to you for even bringing it up.

It’s absolutely infuriating. You can’t root for her, because she’s such a pretentious moron, but you also can’t root for her to lose, because literally every other character in the novel is a thief, a demon, a murderer, or an evil sorcerer, and they don’t even have the pretext of a moral high ground to fall back on.

Then you’ve got Eli and his crew, who run, quite literally, on author favoritism. Usually in a caper you can be impressed by the lengths the thieves go to in order to pull off the heist — their technical skill. Something you can admire, if not condone. These thieves don’t have that, though. They have a very straightforward plot, which falls apart halfway through anyway due to their own lack of planning, and they only get away due to an absolutely indefensible deus ex machina.

The book is also rife with technical flaws… most notably the old reliable infodump and jumping perspectives problems. Most of the story is told from the viewpoint of Miranda, but there are some important scenes where she’s not present, and at that point the perspective switches to whoever happens to be handy, often mid-scene. Once I started looking for this, I noticed that in both of the climactic fight scenes the viewpoint silently shifts between combatants right there in the middle of the fight. This is absolutely amateurish. At least give us a line break to let us know we’ve changed perspectives, here. You get the impression that the characters all have secrets that Aaron doesn’t yet want them to reveal, and every time one of them gets close to doing so, she flails over to another character. This should have been fixed during the editing stage. Pick your viewpoint characters and stick with them. Only telling fights from the perspective of whoever’s currently losing is disorienting and a cheap drama-inducing method.

Now, despite that, there is some good here. The magic system is very well put-together and has a lot of potential. The plotting is solid, and there’s some decent (if simplistic) worldbuilding at play. Aaron’s narrative voice is usually pretty good when she’s not indulging in beginner mistakes. I’d be interested in seeing what she could do with a cast that wasn’t quite so loathesome. I’m getting Jennifer Fallon vibes here, whose first series was pretty terrible but who has produced consistently excellent books once she got her Mary Sues and feminist preaching out of her system. Let’s mark it down as a learning experience, shall we?

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