I could easily become mired in a long rant detailing everything I hated about this book. That wouldn’t be entirely fair, though. The experience of reading BLIGHT OF MUIRWOOD was overall pleasant, and I believe it to be the work of a talented author, with a particular knack for crisp prose and characters who embody a refreshing kind of decency while still showing recognizable human feelings and passions.
In particular, I like the down-to-earth setting. “Low fantasy” seems like an appropriate phrase: the trappings are medieval, decently well-researched but with some idealization. The only things that stuck out as wrong to me have to do with arms, armor, and fighting men, which I suspect don’t interest Wheeler quite as much as the dynamics of life in a cloister or the work of preparing food in a medieval kitchen. The characters are generally endearing, and, well. . .the word “pleasant” comes to mind again. If there’s one word to summarize this book, it would be “pleasant”. “Mediocre” doesn’t quite fit, and the market isn’t flooded with anything quite like this. It’s generally inoffensive fantasy whose lack of sex, bloody violence, and terrifying monsters appeals to Wheeler’s (as I understand) primarily conservation Mormon and Christian audience.
So what didn’t I like?
My objections fall into two broad groups with a theme linking them. First, Wheeler resolves his plot threads pretty much entirely via deus ex machina. The magical element in these books, a force called the Medium, is described as having a will of its own, is explicitly linked to spiritual goodness, and is basically a stand-in for the divine power that caused Biblical miracles. The men and women wielding the medium are a sort of holy-order known as mastons. Our teenage heroine, Lia, is “strong in the Medium”, which seems to make her a miracle worker. This isn’t typical fantasy magic, with any limits, checks and balances, or hazard to the user. The only conflicts are essentially ones of faith–can Lia be brave enough to accept the will of the Medium? Can she trust that it will all work to the good? If the answer is yes, than pretty much every conflict gets handily resolved by a mix of a.) literal miracles, often ones lethal to the bad guys and b.) miraculous information delivered straight to the heroes as “sensing the will of the Medium”.
It’s pretty theologically shady, as well, but I won’t get into that. Suffice to say I’m not comfortable with a book where “having faith” translates to “having unlimited power to burn my enemies to death at will”. That’s not really a fair interpretation–I’m certain Wheeler doesn’t mean it like that–but it’s hard for my mind to make that jump. It’s also hard to feel much tension when characters are literally resurrected from the dead simply because the Medium wills it.
Then there’s the rather explicit Mormon theology, which brings the story to a dead halt for chapters at a time. When Lia undergoes her test to become a maston, it turns out not to be so much a rigorous examination of her skills and will as a cursory indoctrination into the divine secrets of the LDS church.
Man, I didn’t mean for this review to get so salty. I genuinely like the writing and the overall approach. Plus, Jeff Wheeler is an old internet friend, going back to my days as a teenager writing for the e-zine Deep Magic. I’m really happy to see the success he’s achieved. . .I’m just frustrated with the couple of his books I’ve read recently.
I probably won’t read anymore in this world, but I’d like to try something from the other series Wheeler’s been writing.