Review: The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid

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This has been one of my most anticipated books of the year and the last book I read for this year’s r/Fantasy Bingo challenge. I was, first and foremost, intrigued by the Hungarian and Jewish influences. I like cultural worldbuilding, I like(d?) folktale-inspired fantasy, it seemed like a sure bet. Unfortunately, it was yet another disappointment – while I liked the themes of religious tolerance and the protagonist being torn between worlds, the plot was a nonsensical mess, the characters mediocre, and the ending more than a little eyebrow-raising, featuring one of my least favourite tropes. And not in a good way. The more I think about it, the less sense the plot makes – never a good thing. 

However, due to the nature of my issues with the book, it’s impossible to talk about them in any detail without going heavily into spoiler territory. So be aware of that if you venture below the cut.

Évike is the only pagan girl without magic. So when the Woodsmen come to collect their tribute, the villagers disguise as the seer they’re after and sacrifice her. On the way to the capital she comes to get to know one of the Woodsmen, and eventually they join forces against his fanatical brother Nándor.

*** SPOILERS BELOW THIS LINE ***

I really can’t get past what an absolute mess the plot was. After the rest of the woodsmen die in encounters with various monsters, Évike and Gáspár make their way to the north, are told that they cannot do what they intended, and go on to the capital. Rendering most of what happened until that point entirely pointless. At least 100 pages could have been cut without the rest being any worse for it. Not that what happens in the capital makes any more sense. It’s supposed to be political fantasy, but it meanders around and…doesn’t really make sense besides? The king spares Évike more or less because and then just lets her do what she wants for the most part even though she’s dangerous and clearly opposed to him? And she just trusts his promises and is shocked when he breaks them?

Though the second biggest offender in addition to the entirely pointles subplot at the beginning was the very end of the book. Call it influence of being friends with French revolution nerds, but restoring the throne to the rightful heir by blood (who just happens to be the only decent person) after which everything is well and all the injustices and oppression on the way to being fixed is…a deeply unfortunate trope, and even if it’s a staple of the genre, one I dislike greatly. It was leading to it from the beginning, and it would have to be a different book for it to end otherwise (which, with what a mess the rest of it was, might not be a bad thing), but was the framing of Gáspár being right to claim the throne because he is the rightful heir by blood in the Patrifaith tradition really the best option? Especially in a book that, until that point, tried, however unsuccessfully, to be nuanced and present the protagonists with hard choices. This tonal disconnect, grim book, very standard high fantasy ending, definitely didn’t help. 

As far as the characters go, they didn’t save the book either. Évike is the typical abrasive female protagonist with Special™ magic, a trope I usually detest (see: my reaction to A Deadly Education), though given that the society is deeply unfair to her, she at least has more reason for anger than most. Though by the end of the book she turns more meek more or less entirely out of nowhere, which…wasn’t set up well enough to make sense either. Gáspár…well, he’s uptight and misunderstood and brooding and mistreated and cautious to contrast her recklesness and Nicer Than The Other Royals Deep Down™ and that’s pretty much it. Nothing egregious, but nothing special either.

The two things I did like a whole lot were the worldbuilding and the themes. The story often pauses for a character to tell one legend or another, which set the atmosphere nicely. The prose had a few nice turns of phrase, the tensions between the various religious groups also felt very realistic, the theme of religious tolerance was generally executed well if a little heavy-handed, and I liked that it was based on medieval Hungary. Though I do have a couple questions about the magic – would someone who followed all the religions have all the magic? If all the gods are real…how does that work?

But good worldbuilding and an agreeable theme do not a good book make. Not with average characters and an awful plot. And unless someone assures me that the plot issues are absent, I doubt I will read any more books from this author.

Enjoyment: 3/5
Execution: 2/5

Recommended to: those looking for more Jewish fantasy and enemies to lovers
Not recommended to: anyone bothered by poor plot decisions, pointless subplots, or the trope of restoring the rightful king to the throne fixing everything

Content warnings: attempted rape, abuse, antisemitism, genocide

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