Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Microreview [books]: The (original) Muirwood trilogy, by Jeff Wheeler

Beats the pants (most of the way) off of expectations, but—ironically—insists in a prudish way that everyone’s pants stay on

Buy them here.

Former computer guy at Intel becomes full-time—and self-published!—writer, you say? What is he writing, instruction manuals? Ha ha, but it turns out the joke was on me: Wheeler writes with uncommon, almost lyrical beauty at times, and his decision to hang this 'romantasy' (romance fantasy, though romance is a pretty integral part of fantasy as a genre so perhaps this is one portmanteau too far, even for me) on the formidable shoulders of heroine Lia, a teenaged sorcerer-priestess (witch?), was a brilliant one. He adds a fair bit of interesting, if somewhat undeveloped, social commentary and critique in to his world-building as well: Lia is a Wretched (i.e., a bastard), so we can immediately predict one of her Monomythic quests will be to discover the identity of her parents. She is strong in the “medium” (i.e., quasi-intelligent fate/magic which responds to strength of belief/faith), and uses this and all her many other talents to kick some major butt.

The original trilogy unfolds skillfully and Wheeler does a good job of sustaining reader interest throughout, even if the extreme youth of Lia and her beau (the former barely a teenager when she falls for him, the latter borderline creepy given he’s four years older) is hard to swallow. The only serious fault of this series (aside from a(n un)healthy dose of Mormon church-inspired prissy morality which is enough to make notorious “no sex before marriage” Stephenie Meyer look like a sex-crazed lunatic!) is that it’s quite predictable: there was literally a 100% chance that “foundling who turns out to be an incredibly powerful sorceress and warrior, in unrequited-but-sort-of-or-actually-totally-requited love with a boy who has sworn his heart to a mysterious missing princess” will turn out to be—you guessed it—said princess, not the thoroughly inferior girl everyone thinks is the princess. About twenty pages in, the entire trajectory of the trilogy was already taking shape in my mind, and sure enough, after that point there weren’t many surprises.

If a story lacks unexpected twists and turns—if its entire scope is easily guessable within the first few minutes of picking it up—can it really be worth reading? Happily, the answer is a resounding yes! Ralph Waldo Emerson or some uppity idiot like that once said “Life’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey”, and it holds true here. Despite the priggishness, despite the fact that the true enemies turn out to be all women, lascivious Satanist-like succubi-priestesses (mostly patterned on French women, for some reason) whose greatest weapon is their seductive power over men (!), and even though we know practically everything that Lia will face once we catch a glimpse of her story beginning to unfold (basically, will she be Mary, or Eve: a virgin heroine or a ‘whore of Babylon’ type figure—a choice, needless to say, that from a narratological standpoint is no choice at all), it’s still quite enjoyable to watch Lia struggle to find her way, and navigate the heady perils of teenage romance while juggling the fate of all creation!

Gee, I wonder if this warrior-priestess who can do friggin' anything might be that lost princess everyone is talking about? Nah, it's probably just a coincidence.

So while it loses a few points for predictability and major pruditude, this story earns full marks for entertainment value, and nearly full marks for the technical side, as Wheeler writes quite well—even the agape-themed dialogue is fairly believable. I mean, who doesn’t want to read a story about a teenaged polymath warrior-sorceress saving the world? Plus, romance!

The Math:

Objective assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for making Lia so awesome/faultless it’s borderline ridiculous, +1 for exceeding expectations in nearly all ways, including high entertainment value despite penalty #1 below

Penalties: -1 for being so thoroughly predictable, -1 for priggitude (to the point of treating women who allow someone to kiss them on the cheek after a dance as the epitome of evil) -1 for treating being female as more likely than men to lead to great corruption and suffering (hey Wheeler: read a history book! Men tend to suck at peace, human rights, etc. soooo much more than women)

Nerd coefficient: 7/10 “An enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws”

[I think in this case our scoring system is very accurate indeed: this book is well above average yet not quite an ‘I was blown away’-level book, which as you see here is just what a 7/10 is meant to convey!]

This review is the work of Zhaoyun, a romantasy-lover since forever and NOAF contributor since 2013.