Today is my turn on the blog tour for The Wolf and Woodsman, an atmospheric fantasy which tackles some intense issues while also offering a compelling magical adventure.
Book: The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid
Publication date: 8th June 2021
Ownership: Proof sent free of charge by Del Rey Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Religious persecution; violence and gore throughout including stitches, amputation and self-mutilation; magic that requires self-harm; parental abuse. The author has a more detailed list here.
In her forest-veiled pagan village, Évike is the only woman without power, making her an outcast clearly abandoned by the gods. The villagers blame her corrupted bloodline—her father was a Yehuli man, one of the much-loathed servants of the fanatical king. When soldiers arrive from the Holy Order of Woodsmen to claim a pagan girl for the king’s blood sacrifice, Évike is betrayed by her fellow villagers and surrendered.
But when monsters attack the Woodsmen and their captive en route, slaughtering everyone but Évike and the cold, one-eyed captain, they have no choice but to rely on each other. Except he’s no ordinary Woodsman—he’s the disgraced prince, Gáspár Bárány, whose father needs pagan magic to consolidate his power. Gáspár fears that his cruelly zealous brother plans to seize the throne and instigate a violent reign that would damn the pagans and the Yehuli alike. As the son of a reviled foreign queen, Gáspár understands what it’s like to be an outcast, and he and Évike make a tenuous pact to stop his brother.
As their mission takes them from the bitter northern tundra to the smog-choked capital, their mutual loathing slowly turns to affection, bound by a shared history of alienation and oppression. However, trust can easily turn to betrayal, and as Évike reconnects with her estranged father and discovers her own hidden magic, she and Gáspár need to decide whose side they’re on, and what they’re willing to give up for a nation that never cared for them at all.
On the surface, it would be easy to get this one mixed up with the summer’s other big wolf-based fantasy title, For the Wolf, since as well as the title and cover similarity, they also share a forest setting and an enemies-to-lovers romance with a man linked to that forest, but I actually thought this was by far the more satisfying read. The Wolf and the Woodsman is a quest at heart, but although it’s pacey and exciting, it also contains a deep and dark portrayal of cultural violence and religious erasure. I will admit that I know almost nothing about Hungarian history (thanks to my school’s bizarre insistence on only discussing WW2 and Jack the Ripper in History lessons), but I know that the events depicted here are based in reality, and the Yehuli culture is obviously a Jewish analogue. This own voices review is a wonderful one to get a Jewish perspective on the book as a whole. What I will say is that this works perfectly as its own fantasy world, while clearly also having nuanced discussions about issues that affect the real world – and that’s key for impactful fiction.
The whole book is told from Évike’s perspective, and I liked her as a main character well enough. Although this is an adult book, she suffers a little bit from YA heroine traits to begin with, as she’s the only person in her village not to fit in, and when she’s selected to be taken away, she’s defiant of her captors in that well-known rebel girl way. She comes into her own a lot more after the opening section of the book lets her break out of that Katniss-esque path, and it’s her uneasy friendship with Gáspár that really allows her to start to break down that very short-sighted teenage anger. I ended up liking Gáspár himself a lot more than I thought I would at the beginning, too; he starts off a stiff and unlikeable character, but it’s fascinating to see how this is a defence built up over years of needing to be strong. I liked how both Évike and Gáspár showed the tension between hating and loving a home where you were abused; there’s a nuanced depiction of how people can miss the love they were occasionally shown, even while feeling angry and resentful of the abuse. The whole book feels balanced on a knife edge of longing to fit in to a space you detest, and whether you change yourself or the world to make it happen.
I will say, while I think about it, that I would put this into the ‘fantasy with romance’ category rather than ‘fantasy romance’. There is a strong thread of the budding romantic relationship between Évike and Gáspár, but it feels like a subplot to me, with far more attention given to their fight against Gáspár’s brother, and Évike’s journey of self-discovery. I also think readers looking for a satisfying romance may find the ending a little disappointing – I can’t think of a way to phrase it that isn’t spoilery, but it’s a little bit bittersweet. It suits the tone of the book perfectly, but it definitely pushes this out of the ‘romance’ category for me. There’s simply so much else going on, from the political and cultural issues, to the monsters and magic, to the exploration of religion, stories, and truth. It’s a lot to pack into 400 pages.
One last thought: this is a very bloody book. I’m not one to be particularly squicked out by violence in novels, though I don’t enjoy it, but the sheer amount of torture, injury, and often very bloody death that happens to pretty much every character got a little bit much even for me. The relentless violence actually ends up dulling the impact of certain scenes towards the end of the book; I started to just think ‘again?’ as people got badly wounded left right and centre, which undercut the impact of some of the book. It’s effective in showing the brutality of the world to begin with, but it just got a little bit samey, which is something I never thought I’d say about amputations and stabbings!
While not directly drawing on any fairy tales, The Wolf and the Woodsman is folkloric in the grimmest, Grimmest way, so don’t go into this expecting a sweet retelling. However, if you’re looking for something dark, powerful, and captivating, then this will certainly fit the bill. Four out of five cats!