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The Wolf and the Woodsman


The Wolf and the Woodsman

Combining the magic and worldbuilding of the works of Naomi Novik and the folkloric storytelling of THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE, debut author Ava Reid’s THE WOLF AND THE WOODSMAN is a luscious, vivid fantasy rooted in Hungarian history and Jewish mythology with searing connections to our own time.

In the pagan village of Keszi, Évike is the only woman born without any magical powers. While the other females --- wolf-girls, nicknamed for their cloaks made of wolf skin --- in her matriarchal village call upon the magic blood within them to make fire, heal wounds, forge metal and even see the future, Évike alone is cast aside, despite her abilities to hunt and keep her community fed through the long, harsh winters. When we meet Évike, Keszi is gearing up for Woodsman Day, when soldiers arrive from the Holy Order of the Woodsmen to take a pagan girl as a sacrifice to the King of Régország, a Patrician who has made it his mission to cast pagan gods and practitioners from his kingdom. Shielded from the rest of the kingdom by Ezer Szem, a magical forest full of walking trees and vicious animals, Keszi is one of the last remaining pagan villages. For the sheer insolence of existing, they must sacrifice one woman to the king each year.

"Dark, romantic and unforgettable, THE WOLF AND THE WOODSMAN is as steeped in real, traumatic history and gore as it is luscious worldbuilding, captivating magic and a slowburn love story to rival any classic romance."

Keszi cannot survive without its magic. When the village seer foresees that the Woodsmen will take their training seer, Katalin, she disguises Évike and sends her in Katalin’s place --- like a lamb to the slaughter. Raised her entire life with the knowledge that her kingdom’s capital views her and her loved ones as abhorrent, savage monsters, Évike is shocked at how utterly human her captors are, even as she remains filled with justified hatred for them. The Woodsmen are, like their king, Patricians who worship the Prinkepatrios, a flawless being who demands blood as a means of justice and mercy. Discord among the soldiers reveals to Évike that the kingdom is failing, at war with neighboring Merzan and losing soldiers and blood daily. Unsurprisingly, it seems that the majority of the kingdom blames pagans like Évike for the bloodshed. When one soldier attacks her in the night, screaming that he must do what the king will not by “[ridding] the country of pagan scourge,” she realizes that there’s far more hate and vitriolic propaganda behind the religious divide in Régország than she realized.

Régország is full of dark magic, vicious animals and the aforementioned clashes of religion and culture. On their journey to the kingdom, the soldiers and Évike are attacked, leaving her alone with the one-eyed, broody captain, Bárány Gáspár, who soon reveals himself to be not a soldier at all, but the only legitimate son of the king and heir to the throne. The product of a mixed marriage, Gáspár has become disgraced within his kingdom and has lost his citizens’ faith to his more bombastic brother, Nándor. Nándor is a religious fanatic with a gift for charming the masses, using pre-existing prejudices against pagans and the Yehuli (a religious group resembling Judaism) to fuel his journey to the top by blaming any issues in the kingdom on the people who suffer the most and take the least.

As Gáspár explains, his father is a hypocrite, a man who decries pagan worship yet still requires its magic to win his war and preserve his kingdom. Gáspár is a true believer --- as his many self-inflicted scars demonstrate --- but he knows that his father and brother have gone too far, and he will need Évike’s help to travel north to track down the turul, a mythical bird who granted the pagans the gift of sight. With the turul, he can win back his kingdom and keep Évike and her people safe. Like his scars, Gáspár’s missing eye is a testament to his faith. Although Évike knows that his faith likely means that he hates her more than he loves his kingdom, the fact remains that they are alone in a world full of blood and gore with a common enemy, and they will have to band together to find the turul and make it to the capital alive.

Dark, romantic and unforgettable, THE WOLF AND THE WOODSMAN is as steeped in real, traumatic history and gore as it is luscious worldbuilding, captivating magic and a slowburn love story to rival any classic romance. Ava Reid writes magic, myth and folklore so well that you almost forget how poignant the themes of nation-building, propaganda and religious persecution are until they smack you right in the face. Through the eyes of Évike, a mixed-race, mixed-magic wolf-girl at the bottom of her kingdom’s hierarchy, we see the rampant effects of cultural genocide, and the ways that generations of trauma seep into your heart and mind. Her journey to find herself --- including reuniting with her estranged father, a Yehuli tax collector --- forces readers to confront themes of anti-Semitism, ethnic cleansing and the sheer pain of being “other” in a world that demands homogeny. And yet, somehow, the magic system is so vivid, full of imagination, beauty and horror, that you cannot put the book down even for an instant.

Reid captures everything that makes fantasy great by laying bare these complex, difficult-to-discuss themes against her magic backdrop and giving readers no choice but to pay attention and engage. Her magic system is based in body horror and gore, and the forests of Régország are full of ghastly, wicked creatures. I worry that some may classify the novel as “grimdark” and turn away, but to do so would be a mistake. Reid’s imagination is endless, and though the pages are full of violence and blood, they are equally full of centuries of Jewish mythology and history, epic breakdowns of religious and ethnic genocide, and, most haunting of all, Évike, a young woman desperate to define herself and to live.

Written with a timelessness of spirit, a magical world that knows no bounds, and characters who will make your heart pound and your eyes well up, THE WOLF AND THE WOODSMAN is an intricate, gut-wrenching fantasy that will set the bar for dark historical fantasy for years to come.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on June 11, 2021

The Wolf and the Woodsman
by Ava Reid