My Rating: 8/10
In the vein of Naomi Novik’s New York Times bestseller Spinning Silver and Katherine Arden’s national bestseller The Bear and the Nightingale, this unforgettable debut— inspired by Hungarian history and Jewish mythology—follows a young pagan woman with hidden powers and a one-eyed captain of the Woodsmen as they form an unlikely alliance to thwart a tyrant.
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.
What a gorgeous ride! I was lucky enough to receive a finished copy of The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid from HarperVoyager, a huge thank you to them and their publicist Danielle. I enjoyed my time with Évike and Gáspár, which was equally enthralling and anxiety inducing. This book is rich with enchanting storytelling and legend, riddled with terrifying creatures, and a critical examination at the warring of various peoples.
I went between the physical copy of the book and the audio copy, and I will say that I felt more absorbed in the novel when I was reading. There’s something about the way this is written that is so consuming when you are physically reading it. That’s not to say the narrator wasn’t lovely, they were, I just think that I was able to fully focus on this story more by reading it myself. There’s a lot to take in and it’s easy to miss something when you are listening.
This book starts off at breakneck speed, with Évike being thrown out of her village as tribute to the Woodsmen, not knowing that she has no seer powers as promised. As the group of Woodsmen are attacked, she’s left with only Gáspár, and an unlikely friendship forms. As I was first reading, I wasn’t convinced of this friendship. It seemed rather one sided, but I think that’s because we are only hearing Évike’s thoughts. Gáspár seemed like kind of an ass, to be honest. As I thought more about it though, I guess if your people have years of hate between them, it’s understandable if the resisting of a shameful attraction comes off as someone being rude. It would be more unrealistic if they immediately just jumped into a relationship with each other. As it progressed, it was easy for me to fall into the rhythm of their snarky yet tender friendship.
The slow build between the two definitely adds some heat to the story, and Ava Reid knows how to write a love scene. It wasn’t extremely graphic, but she makes you feel the spark between these two.
I found the journey to Gáspár home to be a tiny bit slow, though they did have a lot of run-ins with various creatures and villagers. A lot happened in that time, but it seemed like it took a little bit to get to the meat of the story. The second half of the novel went extremely quickly for me and finished with a bang. The ending happens quite abruptly and I was almost alarmed at the quick resolution. I felt like I wanted more at the end of this book, and immediately went to see if there was going to be a sequel. Don’t get me wrong, everything was tied up quite nicely but I felt extremely endeared to these characters at this point and didn’t want it to end. If a follow up in this world is ever written, I will grab it up immediately.
There’s obviously some tough themes here; we have the attempted extermination of people based on their culture, warring religious groups, and self-mutilation as a way to gain power for starters. Most of us will read this and enjoy it for its fantasy aspect, but we also have to remember that this is historical fantasy. There’s terrible things that happened in history that are brought up here and it can be all too easy to forget that people actually went through similar horrors. It serves as a reminder and a cautionary tale.
I will add a disclaimer that although I’ve been reading an unusual amount of Hungarian and Jewish inspired literature lately, I can’t say that I’m well-versed in the folklore surrounding the cultures and religions involved. So take my review with a grain of salt and make sure to check out reviews from those that are much more experienced and educated in this regard. I may not have noticed anything that I found off-putting or problematic in regards to Hungarian or Jewish folklore, but that could be because I know next to nothing about these subjects! It’s always good to hear from people that know more than we do!
Thank you again to HarperVoyager and congratulations to Ava Reid on a novel well-done.