Serena’s Review: “The Wolf and the Woodsman”

Book: “The Wolf and the Woodsman” by Ava Reid

Publishing Info: Del Rey, June 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: 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.

Review: Apparently summer 2021 was the time for all of the publishers to release books with titles/themes derived from “Red Riding Hood.” This is the first of three, yes THREE, books that have something to do with this story and come out within weeks of each other. It’s pretty crazy! This was the first one I picked up, and it definitely started out this run strong.

Growing up in a remote village made up of women who are persecuted for their powers, Evike has grown up as a point of persecution herself for her own lack of power. The daughter of a mother who died when she was young and a father from a different religion and land, Evike has had no place to call her own. But when she’s sacrificed by her own village to be sent to the capitol city as tribute, she finds an unlikely ally in the crown prince, a young man who understands what it means to grow up with your feet in different worlds. Together, they travel to distant corners of the cold, bitter land, attempting to find a magic powerful enough to protect a country that doesn’t want them from the prince’s fanatical brother.

There were a lot of things to like about this book. Strangely, I think one of the things I most appreciated about it was that while the book description could sound very “YA fantasy” (and don’t get me wrong, I still love YA fantasy), the book itself is definitely an adult fantasy novel. Not only are our main characters in their mid-twenties with the life experiences that come along with that, but the story itself was quite dark and brutal at times. The stakes felt appropriately high, and when things went poorly, they went very poorly.

I also enjoyed the seamless merger of pagan beliefs, fairytales (references to Baba Yaga, the fabled firebird, and, of course, the “Red Riding Hood” bit), and the various religions that make up this world. Evike’s village’s background represent pagan beliefs, a belief that is often more centered around feminine power, thus in this story the magical abilities are limited to the women of the village. Evike’s father is Yehuli, a faith and people that clearly represent Judaism, with parallel examples of the type of systemic persecution Jewish people have experienced throughout history, essentially having no land or home of their own and constantly under suspicion where ever they are. The primary religion doesn’t necessarily line up with any one religion, but it does have the general traits of the pitfalls that can fall upon a country when its people begin to only recognize one faith as valid.

I also really enjoyed how the fairytale elements were woven into the story. The monsters were truly scary, and their connections to the more traditional monsters that we think of in fairytales were done in unique, subtle ways that felt clever and interesting. I will say, however, that a few of the portions of the story that dealt with these disparate creatures or events started to feel a bit disjointed from the overall plot. Like, they were almost small, short stories in their own right. I thoroughly enjoyed them, but you could definitely lift a number of them straight out of the book and not even notice. So your appreciation of them really comes down to how much you’re enjoying the main characters and overall style of writing.

Other than some of these extra pieces of story that didn’t necessarily fit in, my only other criticism comes to some of the mid- to late-game decision making of our two main characters. Each seemed at times bizarrely naïve and willing/unwilling to act at strange moments. Evike makes some sense in that she grew up in such a remote location that her ability to evaluate the stakes and situations of the “outside world” could be questionable. But the prince, also, seemed to make strange decisions at times that didn’t really make much sense.

Overall, however, I still enjoyed these two characters, and I particularly appreciated the slow-burn romance that developed between them. There were no short-cuts that got them over the fact that their experiences of life, while similar in some ways, were still miles apart. The end was also very satisfying in that it neatly wrapped up storylines and left our characters in a situation that was pleasing but not perfect. Again, no easy answers to the realities of this world.

Rating 8: Other than a few quibbles regarding pacing and characterization, I really enjoyed this story!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Wolf and the Woodsman” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Upcoming Fantasy Debuts (2021) and Jewish Inspired SFF.

Find “The Wolf and the Woodsman” at the library using WorldCat!

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