The Wolf & The Woodsman by Ava Reid
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication Date: June 8, 2021
Rating: 5 stars
Summary (from Goodreads):
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 I Liked:
You know that feeling when you see a book's cover, read the synopsis, and just KNOW that this will be something you'll love? I got that feeling when I heard about this book a year ago, and that feeling did not lead my astray. This story was absolutely exquisite.
The Wolf & The Woodsman is an adult fantasy novel based on Jewish folklore and Hungarian history. There are many major themes in this book that the author explored, including cultural genocide, antisemitism, and ethnic cleansing. I want to note that I do not have Hungarian heritage and I am not Jewish, so I will not have the best perspective on certain aspects of the book. Nevertheless, I know how hard the author worked to put every ounce of herself, her culture, her religion, and her history into this book. As an "outsider", I can appreciate how well-written the story is, how fantastic the world-building is, and how powerful the messages are.
Please note: there is body horror, abuse by elders, mutilation, torture, and other potential triggers in this story.
This is the story of Évike, a woman without power in her small pagan village. She is despised by many in her village, and abused for her powerlessness, as well as her mixed heritage (her father is a Yehuli man). When the Woodsmen arrive to take another pagan girl with seer power, the villagers conspire to send Évike. Évike is taken to the nation's capital, where she must serve the king and his treasonous son. Gáspár, one of the Woodsmen charged with bringing Évike to the king, is the king's other son. He knows what it is like to be despised for who he is. Together, Évike and Gáspár must work together to to stop Gáspár's traitorous brother from overthrowing the king, slaughtering the Yehuli, and changing the landscape and the history of the nation forever.
There is so much more to this story than what I briefly summarized. The magic system, the politics, the scheming, the romance... this standalone novel is filled with just about everything that makes a fantasy novel amazing. But it's even more than a "usual fantasy novel" - Reid makes this novel her own by weaving Jewish history, lore, and life into this book. This book parallels Hungarian history in the Yehuli's imminent expulsion from the capital, the blatant discrimination, the way they are used and discarded by the government. I need to reread this novel to analyze and engulf myself in the political machinations and the Yehuli trials - Reid has written these aspects so, so well, and with such power and purpose.
I do want to talk about the romance - I love a good slowburn, hate to love romance. Évike is a feisty, hurt, tough young woman, and Gáspár is a quiet, hurt, tough young man. They should be on opposite sides of the war, with Évike being a pagan "wolf-girl" of mixed heritage, and Gáspár being a royal prince of mixed heritage. But they are like fire and ice or a moth and a flame - they are magnetic, and I love this pairing. I love Évike's headstrong quality and Gáspár's quiet, less assertive nature. Such a sweet, yet volatile romance!
Évike isn't just a strong young woman - she's a fighter and a survivor. She has been abused by her village and her Yehuli family doesn't know she exists. She's tired, hurt, and broken down, but she is a fighter. She takes matters into her own hands - particularly her "powerlessness". Here is where the body horror aspect comes into play - I won't say much more than that. Évike wasn't just on a journey to the capital, or a journey to find this fantastical magical creature - she was on a journey that led to her discovering more about her Yehuli heritage. I really appreciate Reid's commentary on heritage, and the diaspora.
This novel is a standalone, and the story feels very full and complete by the time I reached the end. I would love to read more books in this universe, but I feel as though Évike and Gáspár's "chapter" is over. The ending is one that I enjoyed - no spoilers, of course! The author wraps up all the loose ends but also leaves the future slightly open... I wouldn't mind seeing Évike and Gáspár make cameo appearances in companion novels set within the same universe. If that is something that the author is considering!
I truly enjoyed this wonderful, powerful, thought-provoking novel. The cover is gorgeous and so is the beautiful story!
What I Did Not Like:
I can't think of anything I did not like! Perhaps that the story pacing dragged a little in the middle, but I also read this book over several days, so keep that in mind. The pacing overall is very engaging, but I hit a snag in the middle. But things pick up quickly in the capital! You'll have to read the book to know what I mean.
Would I Recommend It:
I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves fantasy novels. This is NOT a fairy tale retelling - don't be fooled. This IS an adult fiction novel though, so don't confuse this book with Young Adult (YA) novels. The book can be read by YA readers, but the content of the book is certainly meant for adults. (Graphic violence, sexual content, etc.)
5 stars. Thank you so much to the publishing team for letting me read this book ahead of the publication. I have been lending my early copy to friends and family and screaming about this book on social media. I have been struggling to read anything in the last year (oh, pandemic), but this book was exactly what I needed - immersive, intriguing, and thought-provoking. I can't wait to read more by Ava Reid!