Now, this is how you do Epic Fantasy today.
I’ve talked about how much I love Rachel Aaron’s The Legend of Eli Monpress before, so it won’t come as a surprise that my expectations were really high for this fifth and final volume in the series. I confess to having been just a tad worried whether she’d manage to pull all the threads together, resolve all the mysteries and still maintain the insanely high fun level of the previous novels – but after having read it now I am relieved to say she not only pulled it off but actually surpassed herself, making Spirit’s End the crowning achievement and best volume in the series. (And yes, I’m aware that this sounds rather like fangirl gushing, but I do love those novels.) Some slight spoilers in what follows but nothing (I think) to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the novel or the series as a whole.
Spirit’s End begins right after The Spirit War ended, with everyone picking up the pieces from the conflict with the Immortal Empress. There is only a brief respite for our protagonists however, because soon things start to go wrong in a major way, and it is not long until they find themselves struggling to prevent nothing less than the end of their world. Things get even more epic in Spirit’s End than they were in the previous volume – there might not be any armies or battles in this one, but Eli and his gang are up against the imminent apocalypse this time, and you really cannot get any more epic than that. We finally find out how the world works, who Benehime really is and what’s up with those claws that keep scratching at the sky, and it turns out that the world Rachel Aaron’s characters live in is indeed much bleaker than I was suspecting, even taking into consideration the turn towards a darker mood from the third volume onwards.
As a result, there is a real sense of menace here, and while I was reasonable sure there’d be some kind of happy ending, I was by no means certain all characters would make it that far. Of course, this kind of suspense only works if the reader actually cares for the characters involved, and this is one of the things where The Legend of Eli Monpress has always excelled. Eli and Miranda, Nico and Josef are among the most likeable characters in Fantasy fiction, and this has not changed with this novel. None of them is superhuman, all of them are intensely human with flaws and quirks, but that makes their heroism all the more impressive and makes us care for them all the more. Even with all the apocalyptic events playing out in the course of the narrative, Rachel Aaron never loses sight of the human element, and there are several moments in Spirit’s End that are pretty much guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes of all but the most unfeeling reader. (I even embarrassed myself by tearing up on a public train while reading the scene with Miranda in the Conclave.) There are many touching, even heatrending scenes in the novel – some expected, like those between Nico and Josef, some come as a surprise, like a very tender scene between Barnage and Sara. Rachel Aaron even manages to evoke some sympathy for Benehime, whose story, as it turns out, is a very sad one indeed, and makes us understand (although by no means forgive) why she is acting the way she does.
Finally, a word on the ending: It is a common and well-known problem with Epic Fantasy tales that they tend to be rather conservative (to put it mildly) and to favour the old over the new – usually either ending with the old system happily re-installed after some upstart (evil, of course) tried to change things, or by nostalgically bemoaning the loss of the (idyllic, of course substantially better and incidentally also quite feudal) world of yore. Not so The Legend of Eli Monpress – Rachel Aaron is obviously aware of that tradition, and there is one moment when Miranda gets offered the chance to have thing back just the way they were before… and then not only refuses, but actually come up with something better. And it’s completely in character for her, too! (That moment actually confirmed Miranda as my all-time favourite character in the series.) I already mentioned in my post on Spirit’s Oath that there is a strong ethical undercurrent to this series, and you can see that at work once again in how the ending is handled – I really can’t praise Rachel Aaron enough for getting this right, for so deftly avoiding worn-out clichés and for once again proving that Epic Fantasy might smell funny but is still far from dead. All it takes is a skilled and intelligent writer with some fresh ideas, enthusiasm for her story and love for her characters, and you might end up with a wonderful series of novels like The Legend of Eli Monpress that never feels tired but is full of excitment and a sheer joy to read from beginning to end.