The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid
Del Ray, hb, £10.98
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
When the Holy Order of the Woodsman arrives to take a wolf-girl from Évike’s pagan village, they want a seer. Instead, the village elder dress Évike, the only village girl without magic, as a seer and sends her as a substitute. Évike becomes embroiled in a tussle for the throne between the cold captain of the Woodsmen, the disgraced Prince Gáspár, the heir to the throne, and his half-brother Nándor. She must put aside her differences with Gáspár to save her old village and usher in a new era of religious acceptance.
I have a confession to make; I don’t like stories where a large part of the narrative is consumed with travelling. That isn’t to say all journeys in stories are bad, but when there is travel action that doesn’t move the plot on, I get frustrated at the pace. The Wolf and the Woodsman has both, and that’s probably how I describe my feelings about this book. The first quarter is full of fairytale and myth, monsters springing from folklore into reality and showing humans how little they truly are. The journey through the dark wood from Évike’s village to the capital is fraught with danger and resentment. I soaked it up.
But then, when Gáspár reveals his true intention to find the magic that will help his father win a war at their border, they go off on a tangent. Now, I do understand the point of this. It reveals Gáspár’s nature and allows for Gáspár and Évike to develop trust and affection for one another. It just doesn’t do much for me.
Luckily, the journey is fruitless, and we get to see Gáspár in the capital, an outcast prince, heir to the throne by law, if not by popular choice. He understands the delicate dance of diplomacy and how to navigate politics to his advantage, unlike Évike, who is too trusting and with little guile.
The Wolf and the Woodsman is about respecting someone’s beliefs regardless of how they differ from your own. Peppered with myths inspired by Jewish stories and Hungarian history, Reid creates a vivid religious vehicle that drives the narrative forward. Évike never really bought into the stories in her village, only her mother was from the clan, and without magic, she was considered an outcast. That difference is held against her like a crime. When she meets her estranged father later in the book, she begins to understand her village tales in the light of the stories of her father’s people. She develops and grows through understanding where she has come from and witnessing the prejudice of her people now. Rather than her romance with Gáspár, it is Évike’s desire for people to be treated justly no matter what their belief system that motivates her.
A powerful feminist story about acceptance, The Wolf and the Woodsman is perfect for fans of The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden and John Gwynne’s The Shadow of the Gods.