Reid’s debut novel The Wolf and the Woodsman is a darkly written Hungarian history and Jewish mythology inspired fantasy that will keep you on tenterhooks. But be warned, it is dark in every sense of the word; not just because of the spooky woods that permeate a lot of the narrative’s setting. It deals with themes of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and oppression, something to consider if you don’t like exploring those themes in your fantasy books.
The core of the story is about our two protagonists, Évike and Gáspár, and their unlikely alliance. Évike is a wolf-girl stolen away from her village to use her magic to serve a King she hates, and Gáspár is a Woodsman come to collect her, a man who turns out to be the royal Prince. After a horrific attack leaves the two bereft and fighting for survival, the two must rely on each other to stay alive and save a kingdom from the hands of Gáspár’s puritanical brother – a man who seeks to overthrow the King and to cleanse the kingdom of pagans and Yehuli for good.
The exploration of faith and magic, wrapped up in the medium of storytelling and tradition make for a gripping and a really intriguing take on how magic in this fantasy setting would work. I loved the images and discussion of sacrifice in the book (spoilers, it’s gory), the “new” faith versus the old gods, and the suggestion that magic has a very real connection to belief and gods in this world.
“I don’t think the hawk is evil,” […] “But I’m not a mouse.”
“And thank Isten you aren’t,” I say. “Mice don’t have the luxury of passing moral judgement on every living thing they come across. Mice just get eaten.”
I loved how Reid inserted fairytales and myth into the narrative, twisting into the plot like the ever reaching, hungry roots of the trees she describes. This gorgeous, lyrical prose is both bone-chilling and captivating, and helped to solidify the rich and enthralling world, whether that was through the image of a legendary sword made from a god’s fingernail, or a dragon with seven heads. This is decidedly not the place for delightfully twee fairytales – and is instead reminiscent of the tales you might find within the pages of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber.
“It would be just as well,” Gaspar says miserably. “I should be struck dead, for wanting you the way I do.”
As for Évike and Gáspár’s relationship, this classic ‘enemies to lovers’ trope is one that Reid captures so well. I love romance tropes like this. The pining and burgeoning sexual tension between the two is palpable from the first third of the book, but it also becomes delightfully layered and complex the closer they get to their goal of protecting the King. The dialogue between the two is heart wrenchingly written, and you really get a sense of how their connection is built up throughout the book.
However, at times, I felt like the plot raced along far too quickly for me to keep track of everything, especially as it ramped up towards the end. This is a story that attempts to explore large topics like faith, systemic cultural oppression, history, and tradition. Whilst this is deftly done, I definitely had to re-read certain chapters to make sure I’d properly taken in all of the information being thrown at me. Take your time with this!
A dark folklore fantasy, teeming with rich world building and compelling characters, The Wolf and the Woodsman is a gorgeously written debut by Ava Reid. There is a lot to unpack in the 450 pages, but it is worth every word. I hope there is some sort of follow up or further book, as this world – however dark and horrific – is one I’d like to visit again.
*Thank you NetGalley & Del Rey books for gifting me this book in exchange for an honest review.