The Wolf and the Woodsman
The Wolf and the Woodsman was published on June 8th, 2021 (Harper Voyager).
My review does not contain any spoilers.
Content Warning: Parental death, blood and violence, sex scenes, references and allusions to sexual assault and rape, religious segregation
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.
Writing tender character encounters and extraordinary setting descriptions are certainly two of Ava Reid’s strengths. The ability to slow down a moment in the narrative, particularly a tense moment, is something every spectacular [fantasy] author should have. And while these moments are scattered throughout The Wolf and the Woodsman, the storytelling drawbacks made a slightly larger impression.
When opening a book in the fable, fairy tale, or fantasy genre, it can be expected that the reader suspends doubts for at least the first chapter, segment, and through any further fantastical introductions. In The Wolf and the Woodsman, this is effectively done with straightforward language describing exciting action. And fortunately, Ava Reid begins the novel in this way, plunging the reader into her world within the first paragraph.
The trees have to be tied down by sunset. When the Woodsmen come, they always try to run.
The girls who are skilled forgers fashion little iron stakes to drive through the roots of the trees and into the earth, anchoring them in place. With no gift for forging between two of us, Boróka and I haul a great length of rope, snaring any trees we pass in clumsy loops and awkward knots. When we finish, it looks [like]* the spider web of some giant creature, something the woods might cough up. The thought doesn’t even make me shiver. Nothing that might break through the tree line could be worse than the Woodsmen.
Right away, it is logical to assume the story contains magic—perhaps based on or effected by nature—some type of communal structure(s), and already-established conflict. There are few better ways to start a book than like this.
However, as the story got a little more complicated as more details were revealed, it felt like the author was holding something back. Even as the book’s world was being built, there was a feeling of hesitancy, like the author was being too careful about truly immersing the reader into the story. The most engaging parts occurred when our protagonist Évike visits her father, learns how to write, and attends a celebration of the culture she has never known. Ava Reid slowed time with those scenes in the best way, but we were [too] quickly jolted back to the absurdly fleeting pace of everything that came next. If there had been more time taken with breathing life into the cultural elements and historic details of the story, it would have been more satisfying to invest in the protagonist and other main characters.
And although war and prejudice were certainly central to the plot, the supporting details are what make this book more than a story featuring a fantasy hero fighting the power that be. Religion, spiritualism, and fairy tale influence give The Wolf and the Woodsmen its unique quality, and as a debut novel, make the reader want to continue turning the pages. While a deeper integration of the lore into the storytelling would have been more immersive overall, this novel certainly has a place among other novels that pay homage to mythology and folklore while bringing a new story to readers. Any book that gives its readers an opportunity to discover or return to stories that have been passed on through the ages (in this case, Hungarian mythology) is invaluable (see Ördög and the three spheres of the world).
Finally, something has to be said about the number of similes used in this book. Between page 129 (when I started keeping a list) and 403, there were 29 similes used in the narrative. That’s about one per ten pages, and I can say that sometimes only three or four pages passed before another “like or as” statement appeared. On the one hand, it’s impressive that no simile was repeated—that kind of writing skill is admirable—on the other hand, it’s unclear why no editor thought to cut a few out. This is worth mentioning because after a while, it was hard not to anticipate the appearance of the next simile, regardless of how well it was woven into the narrative. As any reader can imagine, that became quite distracting. This is not to say that some of the similes were not well placed, but a lot of the time they were unnecessarily tacked onto a sentence. For example, “Something unravels in me, like thread.” The piece before the comma is picturesque enough. In fact, I was thinking about thread before I was told to do so. They are not all as simple as that, but before the novel was half over it started to feel more like a writing exercise than a drafted story.
Simile usage aside, there’s no doubt of an epic adventure among the pages, and Ava Reid did take some time to slow down, in the best way, and surround the reader with some of the climactic events. But that full Epic status was subdued by a predictable structure of action-storytelling-action-some background-more action. Any supposed plot twist was unsurprising, and everyone “good” made it out alive. Not that killing off everyone the protagonist loves is necessarily a marker of a satisfying, affecting story, but survivable threats and violence towards loved ones (platonic, familial, and romantic) can only go so far in fantasy fiction with war and prejudice at the center. As a debut, The Wolf and the Woodsman is not necessarily disappointing, but it did leave this reader wanting more.