book review

Pagan Magic and Religion Collide in The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid

Book review of The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid

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.

My Review of The Wolf of the Woodsman by Ava Reid

“All that talk of quiet obedience is for their benefit, not yours. They don’t have to go to the effort of striking you down if you’re already on your knees.”

I’ll admit, I was originally hesitant to read The Wolf and the Woodsman, as neither the cover, nor the blurb caught my attention at first glance. However, I kept seeing the book pop up on my twitter feed which prompted me to give it a second glance. Upon looking it up on Goodreads I saw that multiple Goodreads friends loved this novel and that I had to scroll down quite a bit to get to the negative reviews. That, paired with the fact that this is partly based on Hungarian folklore and history, made me cave in and add it to my to-read list. In the beginning of July, a (Hungarian) friend suggested that we could buddy-read some books, and after I brought up The Wolf and the Woodsman, we settled on this being our first buddy-read. Unfortunately, both of us finished this novel with mixed feelings as I’m about to tell you.

The most significant issue I have with this novel is the cast of characters – while they aren’t bad, they certainly aren’t anything to write home about. I could clearly see that Ava Reid tried to create complex characters, but I don’t necessarily think that she succeeded, as most of the characters are portrayed either as “good” or “bad” as opposed to morally grey or complex people. At times, Reid attempted to show that certain characters are more than it meets the eye, but ultimately they too were pushed into the “good” or the “bad” category. I know very well that this probably won’t bother most readers, but personally I like my characters to be more complex and multi-layered especially in fantasy novels. In that sense, The Wolf and the Woodsman was disappointing.

Related to the characters is the romance, something else I have mixed feelings about. One of the things that convinced me to read The Wolf and the Woodsman was that it has an enemies to lovers romance, which is one of my favorite romance tropes. I was incredibly pleased to see that the characters are actual enemies with real obstacles standing in the way of their relationship. What I was less happy about was how fast Évike started to daydream about Gáspár when they first set off as tentative allies. There is such a long and brutal history between their people that this made very little sense to me. I could have put this to the side was their chemistry palpable, but frankly, it wasn’t. All through the book, I kept expecting myself to get more on board with the romance but that just never happened.

“I’d rather die with a blade in my hand, or at least with fire in my heart, than live as the shadow of the shadow.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t just the characters that I’m not completely satisfied with; I have significant issues with the plot-structure and the world-building. My most important problem with the plot-structure is that in many ways The Wolf and the Woodsman is built up like a pretty typical fantasy novel. This is especially true for the second half of the novel, which is consequently the half that I struggled with more. What saved this part is that the pacing throughout the novel is relatively consistent, so even as I struggled with certain things, I can’t say I ever felt like the story was dragging.

With that, let’s move on to the world building! As a Hungarian person myself, I was really excited about the Hungarian inspiration, and I’m so happy to say that besides a couple of mistakes, the Hungarian names and the words used all check out. That said, there are a few things that read as a bit awkward to me, but then again, they might not read like that to other Hungarians. For example, for God, the pagan Évike uses the word “Isten” while Gáspár, who is part of a religion that is clearly meant to represent Christianity, simply uses the English word “God.” In the book, these words seem to mean different things as they are used by vastly different religions, which read as a bit strange to me. In reality, “Isten” and “God” mean the exact same thing, only the first is in Hungarian while the second in English. I know it seems like I’m nitpicking – and I probably am! – but small details like these really took me out of the novel.

Finally, something else that is worth noting with regards to the plot and the world-building is the fact that, to me, there are multiple things in the story that are illogical. Up to a point, I think it’s fair to ask readers to suspend their disbelief, but in this case, there are too many instances of unexplained or unrealistic things. That said, it would be impossible to disclose these without spoilers, so I’m going to have to wrap up this review here. Ultimately, The Wolf and the Woodsman is an enjoyable fantasy novel that is made unique by utilizing Hungarian and Jewish folklore. Its weakness lies in the fact that even as it managed to keep my attention for most of the story, I never felt like the novel was excelling at any of its aspects, be that the characters, the plot, or the world-building. However, one thing is for sure, Ava Reid is a promising debut author, and I can certainly see myself giving her upcoming books a chance.

Final Rating: Three Potted Plants

7 thoughts on “Pagan Magic and Religion Collide in The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid

  1. Brilliant review! This one is on my list for the same reasons… Book Twitter made me do it! I am hoping to enjoy it though. It does sound like something I would like!

    Liked by 1 person

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