Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Wretched of Muirwood (Jeff Wheeler)

The Wretched of Muirwood
(The Legends of Muirwood series, Book 1)
Jeff Wheeler
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young Lia has been a wretched since shortly after birth, abandoned on the doorstep of the ancient Muirwood Abbey. Without a Family, she can never hope to be much more than she is, a humble kitchen servant, though all around her are learners studying the mysteries of writing and the power known as the Medium. Lia burns with the need to learn letters herself, to understand the invisible yet potent magic in the carved Leering stones, but the Aldermaston has specifically forbidden her education. When a wounded squire is dropped at the kitchen door under suspicious circumstances, Lia sees her chance at last: in exchange for hiding and helping the nameless young man, he will teach her to read. But the squire's arrival heralds troubled times, for the abbey and beyond. Lia is soon swept up in a great and terrible adventure, one on which the future of the kingdom itself may depend.

REVIEW: This story starts fast, establishing an interesting magic system in a world that's both comfortingly familiar and a little different from the average fantasy tale. Lia shows pluck and determination, and isn't above the odd petty theft or lie to further her own goals. Colvin the squire, on the other hand, proves largely unlikeable, stubborn and exasperating beyond the point of sympathy. Other characters fall into stereotype traps, as well; Lia's friend Sowe, for instance, has little purpose except as deadweight holding her back. The bad guys tend to be painted with a broad, evil brush - there is no ambiguity, no rationalization or justification, as they knowingly corrupt themselves with evil spirits to attain their selfish ends. Still, I enjoyed the first part of the adventure, and wanted Lia to win.
Somewhere beyond the halfway point, though, little red flags started waving. At first, I thought it was because of minor yet irritating writing annoyances: Wheeler tends to redundancies, such as "she thought in her mind" or repeating in two sentences (or whole scenes) what was perfectly clear in one. Soon, I realized it was the story itself that bothered me. In short, and without spoilers, it stopped being about an underdog struggling to succeed, becoming the tale of a sheltered Chosen One who was not being opposed so much as tested. This pulls the teeth from the tension, rearranging the whole world into a lesson planned by the Medium for Lia's benefit. Some of the religious overtones, mingled with shades of manifestation, grow a bit thick by the end, as well. The conclusion reeks of sap, but by then I was no longer invested in the story, let alone in Lia's future adventures. Considering the promise at the start, I couldn't help walking away disappointed.

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