Rachel Aaron is doing something right, but I don't quite know what it is. The Legend of Eli Monpress is an anthology of the first three of five books about <drumroll> Eli Monpress </drumroll>. It is like something out of a bygone age; well behaved cosy fantasy in which everyone means well and fatalities take place discreetly off stage. I imagine that when Joe Abercrombie sits down to write another one of his furiously gritty sagas of panic and mutilation, he's thinking about Rachel Aaron and trying to be the exact opposite. I'm pretty confident that when Richard Morgan went ranting on about how fantasy needed shaking up, it was exactly this kind of book that he was ranting on about. And yet, despite being a hellish cross between Mills and Boon, the flower fairies and fanfic Lord of the Rings, the book had something in it which kept me turning the pages, and indeed has me putting aside time to read the other volume and see how Aaron sorts out the whole mess.
Part of why it works is that Aaron's had a genuinely personal - and genuinely smaltzy - idea and run with it as a coherent background. In a move which would make Teilhard de Chardin smile and then hit her with something quite heavy, she's imagined an otherwise standardised fantasy world in which every object and piece of scenery has a spirit, which talented people can cajole or menace into doing things for them. Now, as a notion, this is gooey beyond the dreams of Willie Wonka's sweet factory, but goddammit if Aaron doesn't just about carry it off. What's even more remarkable is that she's not much of a stylist, so you're not exactly being wafted along on wings of rhetoric to the happy place where all this stuff might start working for the savvy reader. Aaron's one of those writers who strews adjectives with gay abandon, in oblivious defiance of the great Leonard-ian dictum that a good writer avoids anything which sounds like writing.
So that's the schtick; who's she got running around in front of it? Well, there's your actual Eli Monpress, who is so super powered it's way past funny and into the area where you wonder if the author is in on the joke. On the one hand, he's the world's greatest thief; on the other hand, he's a uniquely talented wizard; on the other other hand, he's got an extraordinary network of friends and acquaintances for someone so young. But that's not all, by any means; he's the chosen of the gods, and all the spirits of the whole world think he's the cat's pyjamas. Everyone's reaction to him is some form of admiration, tinged with varying amounts of annoyance. Backing him up are Josef and Nico. Josef is your standard garden variety thug, carrying around your perfectly ordinary most magical sword in the world. Nico is a "demonseed", and probably the most interesting character in the whole farrago, being as how she's possessed by a local manifestation of the world's big bad and is struggling to hold onto her humanity.
Pitched against our gang of three is the whole world, more or less. Monpress is pursuing notoriety for reasons which are - three books and almost a thousand pages in - still less than clear. It could just be that he's kind of a dick, and this is the way he's chosen to be kind of a dick. And the price of being the most wanted man in the world is having everyone chase after you while you're going about your unlawful business. The sharp end of the hunt is Miranda Lyonette, who's a wizard working for The Man, or as they say in those parts, the Spirit Council. She keeps catching up with Monpress just as he stumbles into a crisis so big that she has to take a time-out from catching him in order to ally with him and save increasingly large chunks of the world.
This is all very childish, especially in the way in which nothing ever seems to result in permanent harm to any of the main recurring characters. You could quite easily let kids read these books; no-one gets terribly hurt, few people get killed, even off screen, and even Enid Blyton books had more sexual tension in them. The villains get their comeuppance in due course, and the status quo is maintained with ease. It's all so terribly cosy. And yet, I kept on with them, and I think I did it because there's a nicely sinister tone around the edges. Behind all the childlike theatrics of Monpress and Lyonette, there are more grown-up characters angling for position in a much bigger game. Some of them are just paper cut-out authority figures of the type you have to roll out in any book with essentially teenage protagonists, but hanging around the edges you can find some nicely edgy compromised fixers, and the big bad's principal opponents seem considerably greyer than the pastel colour scheme we see in the foreground. I have hopes that those elements are going to be more important in the final acts. And at this point, I am steeped in syrup so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er.