The Wretched of Muirwood is a book that I wouldn’t normally have picked up. It’s the opening installment of a trilogy that was first self-published by Jeff Wheeler through Createspace (an Amazon company) after being rejected by the traditional publishing houses Wheeler pitched it to. The book was later picked up by 47North, Amazon’s speculative fiction imprint. I’ve been skeptical of 47North titles because Amazon imprints don’t go through the normal publishing process, and because I was not pleased with the last couple of 47North novels I read. Personally, I love the idea of being able to self-publish, but as a reviewer, I can attest to the fact that most (but not all) self-published work I’ve encountered that wasn’t from an already well-known author has been… less than stellar. Far less than stellar. That’s because self-publishing doesn’t involve all those folks whose job it is to vet the work before it gets to the reader (agents, editors, slush-pile readers, and publicists).
But Kindle Direct Publishing has led to a new model that Amazon has been trying for a couple of years now. Authors self-publish their books in Kindle format and keep complete control, pricing their book as they like. Amazon tracks the sales (and, I assume, the reviews) of these self-published books and offers contracts to authors whose books are doing well. Thus, authors have the burden of doing the self-promotion, often taking a monetary risk by giving away a lot of free e-copies to get attention, and those people getting the free copies are acting as Amazon’s slush-pile readers. A pretty good system for Amazon and for authors who are willing to do the work and who, presumably, have a product good enough to get the reviews they need. This is what happened to Jeff Wheeler; he gave away lots of free copies of The Wretched of Muirwood, got great reviews, and got Amazon’s attention. The Wretched of Muirwood came to my attention because Brilliance Audio (another Amazon company as of 2007) has been producing 47North titles on audio and sending me review copies. The cover of The Wretched of Muirwood is attractive and it’s narrated by actress Kate Rudd, which I thought was promising, so I gave it a go.
That’s a really long introduction to Jeff Wheeler’s debut novel, which is a story about a girl named Lia who works in the kitchen of an abbey. More than anything Lia wishes she could be one of the students at the abbey, but she’s an orphan and is not allowed to study. When she saves the life of a young man named Colvin, she ends up accompanying him on a trip to meet up with a band of noblemen who oppose the tyrannical king. Along the way Lia discovers that she has some skills with magic and maybe even a Destiny.
For readers who love the traditional tropes of epic fantasy and are looking for another story in which a humble young protagonist starts out illiterately baking bread in the kitchen of an ancient abbey but ends up as a warrior in an epic supernatural battle between good and evil, The Wretched of Muirwood is likely to please. It’s well-written (not beautiful, but certainly miles better than most self-published work I’ve read), has a nice setting, an interesting story, and moves at a good pace.
The greatest strength of The Wretched of Muirwood is the characters. Lia is a pleasant protagonist — she’s smart, eager to learn, courageous, and nice to be around, but she’s not too perfect, at least at first. Other characters have their own distinct personalities and make a good supporting cast. None of them are anything we haven’t seen before in this type of epic fantasy, but they are pleasant to read about.
Those who are looking for something new will find that The Wretched of Muirwood doesn’t stand out. This was exactly the issue I had with the last couple of 47North novels I read, though The Wretched of Muirwood is better. The story could have benefited from something special, like an original magic system. Wheeler’s magic consists of a nebulous energy called the Medium, which has its own mission and helps those who believe in it, similar to The Force in Star Wars or, more likely, the Christian Holy Spirit. After reading about Jeff Wheeler and discovering that he’s a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I suspect that parts of his story may be metaphor for LDS doctrine. (I can’t say for sure since I’m unfamiliar with teaching that goes beyond what’s found in the Bible.)
Jeff Wheeler originally pitched The Wretched of Muirwood as a young adult novel and I think that target audience will enjoy the book most and will want to read Lia’s further adventures in the next novel, The Blight of Muirwood. Brilliance Audio sent me the whole trilogy and I liked The Wretched of Muirwood well enough to give that second novel a try. Kate Rudd does a great job with the narration. She has a superior ear for the rhythm of the story and she can convincingly read both male and female parts.
The Legends of Muirwood — (2013) Publisher: In the ancient and mystical land of Muirwood, Lia has known only a life of servitude. Labeled a “wretched,” an outcast unwanted and unworthy of respect, Lia is forbidden to realize her dream to read or write. All but doomed, her days are spent toiling away as a kitchen slave under the charge of the Aldermaston, the Abbey’s watchful overseer. But when an injured squire named Colvin is abandoned at the kitchen’s doorstep, an opportunity arises. The nefarious Sheriff Almaguer soon starts a manhunt for Colvin, and Lia conspires to hide Colvin and change her fate. In the midst of a land torn by a treacherous war between a ruthless king and a rebel army, Lia finds herself on an ominous journey that will push her to wonder if her own hidden magic is enough to set things right. At once captivating, mysterious, and magic-infused, The Wretched of Muirwood takes the classic fantasy adventure and paints it with a story instantly epic, and yet, all its own.