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The Wretched of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler

The Wretched of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler
4
Book Name: The Wretched of Muirwood
Author: Jeff Wheeler
Publisher(s): 47North
Formatt: Paperback / Audio Book / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy / YA Fantasy
Release Date: January 15, 2013

If Hermione in the land of Narnia sounds like your dream come true, then you may love The Wretched of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler.

The story begins in proud Oliver Twist fashion, with the protagonist properly orphaned and destitute, a Cinderella in the kitchen of a forest monastery. If this seems too familiar to you, then you may not be the target market. The Wretched of Muirwood is a middle-grade fantasy adventure for young readers and a breath of magically freshened air for adults whose lives have been overgrown with complexity.

Never underestimate orphans. (Aspiring evil overlords should stop reading here to make a note of that.) I would go as far to say that an author who hasn’t orphaned their protagonist isn’t trying hard enough. But Jeff Wheeler goes so much farther. His heroine, Lia, wants only to learn to read. A brilliant mind, she collects words and values them more than coins, but the monastery master has forbidden her the art of reading. She has also been denied knowledge of her parents, which causes more than grief in this fantasy world.

The wretched of this land are those blind to their ancestry and thus ignorant of their magical power. This inner strength, known as the Medium, flows down lineages. Think of it as the Force, but with more abilities, each power woven into a person through the converging branches of a family tree. Bereft of parents, Lia has no idea of the extent of her magic, and she isn’t likely to be told anytime soon by the walking tempest known as the monastery master. What was that saying? Spare the rod, spoil the read.

The master frightens Lia, and the cook forces the girl to work her hands raw kneading dough. They torment her, but neither are caricatures of their roles. From reading her first line of scolding, I suspected the cook harbored compassion for Lia, and even the monastery master may have thought his decree served Lia’s best interest. The affection hidden in their sternness provides a spark of nuance that energizes the dialog, which impressed me throughout. The characters of the story are likewise robust.

Lia comes to appreciate her uneventful life at the monastery, once the outside world intrudes with its perils. A squire named Colvin stumbles in, near death. Lia nurtures him back to health and hides him from his pursuers, in exchange for promises of coin. This struck me as mercenary, but I grew glad she had a spark of self-interest to her. The angelic nature of Oliver Twist cloyed me to within an inch of my life. Speaking of the insufferable, Lia’s fellow wretched, Sowe, plays the part of coward to emphasize Lia’s courage. Luckily, Sowe bows out of the story about a chapter before I ripped my way into the book to throttle her.

We learn that Lia wants the coin to purchase her freedom and an education, so she’ll have her life’s dream, if she can only keep Colvin alive and out of the clutches of the sheriff. The trouble is, the sheriff is fist-biting creepy. He makes dark lords seem like pink teddy bears. It almost goes without saying that he is imbued with the strength of skittering shadow tattoos, but more than that he has Jeff Wheeler’s deadly prose and potency of dialog. He carries a royal writ for Colvin’s execution, but his interest swings to Lia like a pendulum axe once he learns the depth of her magical talent.

Lia has power up to her glowing eyeballs. Even untrained, she can shame Colvin, who has been studying the Medium for years in another monastery. (Those who roll D20’s can think of him as a paladin in training.) He hides his fear and self-doubt under an imperious scowl, and he hates having to rely on a wretched. Her intelligence and power only add to the insult. Lia is not one to meekly accept his ingratitude, and they build a tense but believable relationship amid danger and sorcery.

The heritage-based magic irritated me more than anything else in the story. I would’ve preferred the protagonist sweat a little for her supernatural supremacy. My sympathies ran more toward the sheriff (and not only because of his creeping tattoos!), who was born without magic but had to seize it by his own will. I realized long ago, however, that my preference runs counter to the paradigm of most fantasy.

The magic’s skill component grows more obvious toward the end of the story. Lia loses her powers when she begins to doubt herself, or at least when the sheriff’s magic flays her of confidence. Colvin does his best to tutor her into accepting the Medium with a calm mind, a feat he has yet to master himself. Distinguishing the Medium’s urgings from the sheriff’s magical terror is a muddle both to the reader and Lia.

The ending has a beat of anticlimax, caused by what feels like two ultimate conflicts. Both victories come from the agency of Lia, who triumphs in an epic fashion that has nothing to do with good fortune. That is, aside from her innate power in the Medium.

The faith-based power has obvious parallels to Jeff Wheeler’s own beliefs as a practicing Mormon. So does the book read like a sermon? I’m not associated with the church, and I would say the magic system sits well within the normal scope of the fantasy genre. Lia is not a passive vessel of magical faith but must struggle with her choice to accept the supernatural guidance at every turn. If The Wretched of Muirwood pokes the reader with religious themes, then the Chronicles of Narnia bludgeons.

The people most likely to be offended with the story may be Mormons themselves. A few members of the Church of Latter-day Saints critique the story as drawing too directly from their holy book, both in concept and scene composition. Their reviews mention they could predict what would happen in the trilogy based on their religious background. (Again, I would guess Christians could level the same criticism at C.S. Lewis, as Tolkien did.)

The last item of interest is the book’s publisher. 47North is Amazon’s imprint for speculative fiction. Jeff Wheeler independently published, and the success of his book caught the notice of Amazon’s cyclopean eye—and what a handsome eye it is! The imprint then assisted Jeff Wheeler in producing an audiobook, voiced by actress Kate Rudd. I loved her performance, but in listening I never saw a word of text. I couldn’t say whether or not the typos noted by early reviewers have been eradicated. I should think 47North would’ve attended to them in Amazon’s typical crushing fashion.

The Wretched of Muirwood may lack the talking animals of Narnia, and it may not be as suitable for the youngest of children, but I see no other reasons the story should not be enjoyed. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to meet my new friend the sheriff. I want to discuss the crafting of a certain twisted amulet. You see, those born without magic have to make their own way.

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Rating: 9.4/10 (9 votes cast)
The Wretched of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler, 9.4 out of 10 based on 9 ratings
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