I’d be impressed if you’ve managed to spend the last couple of months in the fantasy community without hearing a lot of hype for this book – unfortunately for me, I think all the buzz raised my expectations for this atmospheric fantasy romance a little too high.
Book: For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten
Publication date: 1st June 2021
Ownership: Proof sent free of charge by Orbit Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Body horror; blood magic including a lot of self-harm; mentions of previous attempted suicide. The author has a more detailed list here.
As the only Second Daughter born in centuries, Red has one purpose—to be sacrificed to the Wolf in the Wood in the hope he’ll return the world’s captured gods.
Red is almost relieved to go. Plagued by a dangerous power she can’t control, at least she knows that in the Wilderwood, she can’t hurt those she loves. Again.
But the legends lie. The Wolf is a man, not a monster. Her magic is a calling, not a curse. And if she doesn’t learn how to use it, the monsters the gods have become will swallow the Wilderwood—and her world—whole.
I’ve been putting off writing this review for a couple of weeks, as I have very mixed feelings about this book and I was hoping that they’d settle down. Honestly though, the more I think about it, the more I feel let down! I’ve been so thrilled by the recent upsurge in fantasy romances coming out, as it’s a subgenre I adore, and mixing in fairy tale inspirations and dark foresty vibes made this sound like it was going to be a new favourite for me. And it’s not a bad book! It just missed the mark for me in a number of ways, and I ended up feeling very detached from everything that was going on.
For the Wolf is being marketed as a ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ inspired story, with Red, a princess, sent into the dark forest to appease the monstrous Wolf. They assume she’ll die horribly, like all the Second Daughters before her, but instead she discovers that the Wolf is more human than expected – and far more attractive. Trapped in his castle by the forest that is desperate for their blood, the two of them have to learn to work together to use their magic to save not only themselves, but also everything outside the forest. I actually felt that For the Wolf had way more in common with ‘Beauty and the Beast’ than ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, which I’m not complaining about, as the latter has never been a story I felt much affinity for, but given that ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is such a staple of the genre, it makes me wonder why the publisher didn’t lean into that side of it, especially given the current hype surrounding ‘monster boyfriends’. Either way, apart from its use of a few tropes, this is very much its own story, and certainly steps away from the fairy tale beats quite quickly.
This book is gorgeous to start with, but one of the biggest issues for me was that this felt like it was far more style over substance. The writing is very descriptive, and it’s easy to imagine Red’s grand but cold home, the creepy forest, and the Wolf’s crumbling castle. If you’re a fan of dark forest settings, there’s much to love in the lush descriptions of the blood-drinking trees! However, for me that dramatic style did very little to cover the fact that the characters were a bit lacklustre, and the pacing was way off.
To talk about the pacing first – I’ll admit that I put this book down for two weeks in the middle as I was actually bored. I thought it might be me being in the mood for a different genre, but when I returned to it, I still felt like nothing was happening. The opening chapters are really great! They ask lots of questions and offer lots of hints about the world that were really intriguing, but after 100 pages or so, the main story seems to grind to a halt. The main narrative is from Red’s perspective and shows her journey as described above, but there are chapters interspersed irregularly which follow her sister Neve’s search for a way to rescue her, which were far more interesting and drove the plot far more. Unfortunately, this put the main narrative into a sort of limbo until Neve’s story kicked off the endgame plot, so Red and the Wolf were left repeating the same few actions over and again for three hundred pages or so – practising magic, healing multiple holes in the forest, and arguing with each other over who gets to sacrifice more – until the other plotline caught up. They literally repeat conversations. This should have been where the bulk of the romance came in, as the two of them were trapped together with time to spend getting to know one another, but as I’m about to discuss, I felt this was sorely lacking, which meant that the majority of the book was just boring to me. It’s wildly melodramatic, and I could tell I was meant to be as emotional as the characters were, but I felt totally detached from it.
The much vaunted monster boyfriend, Eammon, was actually a very thinly-developed character. He hated the curse, wanted to protect Red, missed his parents, and liked books. That’s about all I learned about him in the 420-odd pages of the book. He’s one of the blandest love interests I’ve read in a long time, especially when I was expecting a really interesting dark romance! Mostly, though, I found it very hard to connect with Red as a person. She had a lot of classic heroine traits – stubborn, self-reliant, seething with a power she didn’t understand – but I found that she came across to me as petulant rather than opinionated, and awkwardly single-minded rather than capable. Mostly, I’m disappointed that neither of them seemed to grow or change throughout their relationship; they seemed to flip overnight from mutual distrust to hysterical declarations of love, without any real development or work from either of them. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by all the excellent historical romances I’ve been reading lately, but I think for a romance to come across well on page, every conversation between the leads should be revealing in some way, and each person should be made better by their connection. There are a few cute moments of flirting, but I feel like neither of them had enough of an impact on each other to warrant their falling love!
With the romance not bearing its weight, I found that the issues with the plot itself became more apparent. Contrary to Red’s static plot, Neve’s plot is full of action as she’s seduced down a dark path in order to rescue her sister, but I thought the villain was so glaringly obvious from the get-go that I thought they must be a red herring! I won’t spoil anything, but I will say that a great book has twists that are shocking and make perfect sense once you think about it, and the twists here were either sadly obvious or totally out of the blue. I was left more confused after some of the reveals than I had been before, and I’m still not sure I could tell you exactly why some things happened the way they did. The magic system in particular is still completely baffling to me – I would have loved more, and clearer, world-building. If Red had spent her chapters learning about her magic rather than angsting about it, I think I would have had a much better time!
I do also want to talk about the self-harm in this book. I always make a point of adding a content warning for blood magic if it comes up in a book, as it very often involves characters cutting or otherwise injuring themselves to cast spells. However, there are ways to include this as a magic system that don’t dwell on the act of cutting – and this book does, in quite some detail. I actually wasn’t at all surprised to see Emily Duncan name-checked in the acknowledgements, because some parts of this book reminded me a lot of the problems I had with the depiction of self-harm as magic in Wicked Saints – both books seem to revel in how taboo it is, which could be extremely triggering for some, and for others will just feel unnecessarily ‘edgy’. This definitely has Wicked Saints vibes all over, now that I think about it, so if you like that kind of ‘dark’, melodramatic upper YA, this will be perfect for you, but wow is that not what I thought I was signing up for.
There’s a huge problem in fantasy with books by female authors being automatically categorised as YA, but I think this is actually a case where publishing as YA would have made a lot more sense – it certainly would have meant I was less disappointed by my expectations of adult fantasy. Interestingly, I’ve just spotted a tweet from the author which says, talking about how the book was written as YA originally: “My agent and I decided that it just fit better in adult than YA, thematically! Really the only thing that changed was that we aged Red up and let the book be longer”. I think this really shows, and in a detrimental way. I love YA fantasy, but it’s got its own style, beats, and expectations of characters, arcs, and worldbuilding – what makes a book adult fantasy isn’t just the age of the protagonist and more pages. This tweet feels like it’s a wild misunderstanding of genre, and explains to me perfectly why this sat so awkwardly between the two age ranges.
Honestly, the more I dig into my thoughts on this book, the less I think I liked it. I think there are some lovely ideas, but the execution just didn’t quite work for me. I keep coming back to word ‘dramatic’ and the thought of the later Twilight Saga books – that utterly teenage feel where everything is so important and emotional and you just don’t understand me but I’m in love – which is very startling given I was expecting an intricate adult fantasy romance. Three out of five cats for me.