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.
I’m glad this is one of those novels I read thanks to an interview with the author over at The Fantasy Hive and not thanks to the blurb, because I’m not sure I’d’ve enjoyed this story as much as I did if I didn’t go into it blind and let myself get carried away by it. I love it when fantasy novels dive into faith and religious orders – religions, in general, fascinate me – so that interview made me order a copy of the book immediately. I added it to my summer TBR, I picked it up in July… and then I finished it almost exactly two months later.
If I’m being honest The Wolf and the Woodsman is one of those novels I enjoyed while reading it, but I never felt particularly compelled to pick it up again when I set it down. I do think that says a lot more about my mood at the time of reading it, though, than the book itself, because I read the latter half of the book in a single afternoon.
Twenty-five-year-old Évike was born and raised in the woodland pagan village where she is treated as something of an outcast for being the only woman with no magic. She is a skilled archer and teller of stories, not to mention a woman who isn’t afraid to lash out even if it earns her a beating, but she never feels like she belongs – especially since her mother was taken by the Woodsmen, a holy order who collect pagan women to sacrifice for the king, when she was still a child.
When Évike herself is taken by the Woodsmen, she becomes embroiled in a land of conflicting faiths and the magic that runs through them.
If this is Reid’s debut, I can’t wait to see what she does next. There’s some beautiful writing in The Wolf and the Woodsman – if you’re a fan of Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, one of my all-time favourites, this is a book for you – but what I loved most about it were Reid’s choices as a storyteller. There was a certain way this novel could have gone, and probably would have gone if it were a YA novel published several years ago and not an adult novel published in 2021, but Reid refuses to rush anything. We get time in Évike’s world to see what’s at stake, and also see how there are no easy choices to make that will satisfy everyone. The history of religion is bloody, so we should expect no less when we encounter it in a fantasy novel like this one.
That said, for me the romantic and sexual tension between Évike and Gáspár, the Woodsman who takes her from her village and soon becomes a reluctant ally, began a little too early. Considering Woodsmen are responsible for not only the death of her mother but for the deaths of the other women taken from her village, even if it is a village that hasn’t treated her as well as it could have done, she seemed to be imagining what it would be like to sleep with him pretty swiftly. I prefer something a little more slow-burn. Then again Évike is a very messy heroine, which I loved about her, and it was such a pleasant surprise to be reading a book like this where it’s Évike, and not Gáspár, who is sexually experienced, confident and unashamed (for the most part) of her desires. After all, it’s Gáspár’s religion that preaches shame and repentance.
By the latter half of the novel I loved their relationship – the kneeling scene will live rent free in my head, thank you very much – and loved that it remained a central part of the novel without completely taking over, so that our focus could remain on the relationship between religion and magic in a land where one faith seeks to wipe the others out and still have plenty of time left over for Évike to explore her Yehuli heritage.
The Wolf and the Woodsman is a wonderful debut with a heroine as compelling as she is stubborn, and it’s the perfect book to pick up as the nights get colder.