Guess what? I finally won a Goodreads giveaway! That’s how I ended up with The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid. It took about six weeks to arrive, but when it did, I paused my Guy Gavriel Kay marathon and quickly switched gears to see what this debut had in store.
In the village of Keszi, the women are blessed with power that manifests into abilities that start fires, forge metal items, heal wounds, and see the future. Named wolf-girls for their fierce predator cloaks, most of the women have multiple abilities. Some become very proficient with one power, but only Évike has none. When it comes time for the Woodsmen, soldiers of the Patrifaith, to collect their triennial wolf-girl sacrifice, the inhabitants are quick to turn Évike over. The ostracised wolf-girl must travel with the Woodsmen to be brought before the king, but monsters stalking the travelers alter their plans. In the resulting chaos, Évike discovers that the Woodsman leading their party is no ordinary soldier, but the rejected heir to the throne – Gáspár Bárány. The unlikely pair find common ground and decide to chart a different path to protect their kingdom in a country torn by differing belief systems.
This is a story I’ve read many times before. A woman with either no magic (or all the magic) is mistreated and cast out to the opposition only to discover she has empathy for her enemy in their shared experience of being rejected. This happens even though both characters have completely different beliefs, upbringings, morals, etc. Or in the case of Wolf and the Woodsman, all of the above. What makes this story unique? Not much. Sure, it has its own form of magic, belief systems, and unique world. But no matter how different the setting or the characters, the book played out the same way so many others have before. Yes, I do love this formula (my shelf is littered with them!), but the story has to carve out its unique imprint on the reader. Wolf and the Woodsman just didn’t stand out from the pack.
The writing style was the biggest hindrance to my enjoyment of this book. Similar sentences appear next to each other that reiterate the same point, and I frequently came across references that were repeated over and over, making for prose that is clumsy and awkward. I lost count of how many times Évike mentioned the lashings from Virág or the blue flame of Katalin’s eyes when she was bullied. The silhouette of Gáspár in his suba was also a frequent favorite. And there is an abundance of metaphors and similes. Oftentimes they don’t make sense or the comparisons are far out there. At one point, a violent fight scene was in play and I was immediately pulled out by a reference likening soft faces to fresh challah bread. These strange descriptions appeared frequently and were distracting. Lastly, downright gory descriptions would come out of nowhere. Reid goes out of her way to give us minute details of violence but it always felt out of place when the story never dove deep during other occasions.
Religion is a huge focal point of Wolf and the Woodsman, creating tension in the story but never leaving the safety of the surface. The first 70 percent of the book is just Évike and Gáspár bickering about each other’s pagan and Patritian beliefs. One of my favorite things about the enemies to lovers trope is the character development along the way. But Reid makes us fill in a lot of the gaps here, jumping from lame insults to a love so deep it defies both duty and religion. And in the last 30 percent, we are briefly introduced to the Yehuli religion where all three beliefs clash superficially. Throughout the story, I got the hint that understanding was developing between characters, but I never actually saw it. I ended up in a place where characters were just fine with their opposition, with no way of knowing how they got there or why. It’s disappointing because there was a lot of potential here to explore the different identities vying for freedom in a country divided.
The Wolf and the Woodsman fell short in a lot of ways. It lacked character development, was burdened by slow pacing, and tripped over itself with lengthy and repetitive prose. I encountered some promising elements, but ultimately it failed to come into its own powerful magic.
Rating: The Wolf and the Woodsman – 4.0/10