Saturday 29 January 2022

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Review: The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid

The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid

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The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid

Published: 8th June 2021 | Publisher: HarperVoyager | Source: Bought
Ava Reid’s Website

A dark, evocative and unforgettable fantasy debut steeped in Hungarian history and Jewish mythology, perfect for fans of Naomi Novik and Katherine Arden.

Stories don't have to be true to be real...

In her forest-veiled pagan village, Évike is the only woman without power, making her an outcast clearly abandoned by the gods. 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.
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The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid is a book I've been looking forward to for quite a while. A high fantasy inspired by Hungarian history and Jewish mythology, it sounded right up my street. But while I enjoyed it for the most part, I didn't really love it.

The premise of the story is fascinating, and I enjoyed getting to learn about the world, and Évike and Gáspár. I really liked both characters; they're layered, complicated and flawed, and really believable. They're both conflicted in their own way; As a Patritian, Gáspár has been brought up to hate the Pagans, with their demon gods and atrocious magic, but Évike has knowledge that Gáspár needs in order to try and defeat his zealot, power-hungry half-brother Nandor - he needs her help. Similarly, Évike has always feared Patritians, and the Woodsmen specifically, for their hatred of their kind, and the fact that every few years, they take a woman from her village to the King of Régország, and ultimately to her death, but if Nandor becomes too powerful, he will exterminate the Pagans and the Yehuli. Neither of them have a choice; the King might be terrible, but he's the lesser of two evils.

I absolutely loved seeing both Évike and Gáspár grow as they spent more time together, and learnt more about each other, their lives and their faiths. What Reid has to say about faith and religion in The Wolf and the Woodsmen is really fascinating. It looks at personal faith versus religion. While the organised religion might seem absolutely disgusting, an individual's personal faith and how it guides them isn't necessarily bad. Gáspár's faith is true and genuine; despite what he's been taught to believe and think, it's not about judging and looking down on the Pagans. His faith is strong and is his moral compass. There is right and there is wrong. What struck me was not what he considered wrong, but what he considered right, and the moral standard he measures himself against. I didn't agree with all his views or the decisions he made, but at his heart he was a decent guy - despite the obvious heinous aspects of his religion, as seen through Évike's eyes.

But they both begin to question everything they've been told, brought up to believe and expect about the other. Évike learns about Gáspár's faith, and Gáspár learns about Évike's life and beliefs and stories. They get to know each other as individual people, and it turns their worlds upside down. There are definite questions over some of the darker sides of each, but neither is as bad as the other expects, and they become even more conflicted. The Patritians and the Pagans are not monoliths, and not everything they've been told is true - at least not of everyone. Similarly, it's a look at the beliefs about others you've been taught versus experience of those very people.

And it's this that sparks the romance, but to be honest, there isn't much in the way of sparks. I really liked both characters, but I just didn't feel or believe the romance. I could believe them discovering the other wasn't who they expected, and those barriers coming down lead to an acceptance that eased their alliance somewhat (though only somewhat), and maybe even camaraderie, and eventually friends, but not the romance. While I really enjoyed how this added a further dimension to the internal conflict each of them felt about betraying their own, I just didn't see when or how they fell in love; I don't think this aspect of the story was developed enough.

And it's probably to do with my bigger issue with the story. I was unaware that The Wolf and the Woodsman was a standalone novel. Historically, I do not tend to get on with standalone fantasies. The first half of the book was very stop/start, which was really frustrating. Despite being 418 pages, I feel the story should have been longer, or split into a duology maybe, so more time could be spent on the events that "halt" the story. While Gáspár and Évike are on their journey, they stop a few times, meet new people, have to deal with something, and then carry on. I'm not a fan of books that stop/start stop/start, I feel it stops the story flowing. But rather feeling like these events were unnecessary and shouldn't have taken place, I feel they were too brief; it made them feel pointless, but they really weren't. They were important moments in the development of the relationship between Évike and Gáspár; they allow for the two to learn certain things about the other, or saw a different side to them. But they went by too quickly, and then they were off traveling again. I also feel it was somewhat unfair to us to meet some really interesting characters, to then leave them so quickly.

But once we're past the halfway mark, and the two reach Király Szek, home of Gáspár and the King, things really start to pick up, and we get to see more strongly the horrors of this world, and of the Patritians specifically. The hate they have for people not like themselves is appalling, and the way they treat them is shocking. The King is despicable - treating those who aren't "pure" Régország Patritians terribly - but his son Nandor is horrifying - who would kill them all. Neither are good for all the people of Régország - the Pagans and the Yehuli, as well as the Patritians - but the King is the lesser of the two evils. Gáspár is trying to save a father who abused him in order to save the people he has been raised to hate.

The second half is truly epic; action and danger, with a much faster pace and raised tensions. The story really shone here, and Reid's skill really comes into it's own. However, once the story ends, there were certain things that disappointed me. I have questions around world building, Patritian magic specfically, and how and why it works for a particular person, and there was a whole subplot that actually came to nothing in the end. Just a few niggles that had me asking why. But I did enjoy the book as a whole, and I will be reading Reid's next novel, Juniper & Thorn, but I do feel The Wolf and the Woodsman left a lot to be desired. A lot of people loved this book, though, so do read other reviews before deciding whether or not to read it.

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