One of the books that I heard about in the Del Rey UK 2021 Virtual Showcase, The Wolf and the Woodsman caught my attention immediately as a pagan because this is a book where the main character is a pagan! That in itself is highly unusual and the more I learned about this book, I realised it was just the tip of the iceberg. I had to get my hands on it and the lovely people at Del Rey were kind enough to provide me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Rachel Kennedy for the opportunity to review The Wolf and the Woodsman!
The author provided the following content warnings for this novel:
– Gore, including graphic descriptions of dismemberment, amputation, mutilation, and immolation
– Torture, including whipping
– Self-harm, including self-amputation
– Animal death (graphic; the animals are not pets)
– Cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing
– Physical abuse by parents and parental figures
– Graphic descriptions of vomiting
Please note that The Wolf and the Woodsman is an adult fiction novel, it is not categorised as young adult. There are some sources listing it as young adult and this is incorrect.
There were so many things that caught my attention about this book. It first came to my attention during the Del Rey UK 2021 Virtual Showcase and as soon as I heard about it I knew I had to read it. During the showcase, a promotional video with Ava Reid was shown and she discussed how she had created her own Hungarian and Jewish folklore mixing it with a magical system and religious angst. I’ve always been interested in mythology and theology, and I come from a bit of an odd background in terms of religion and spirituality. I was baptised rather than christened, which isn’t that uncommon but I only know of one other person I went to school with who was also baptised. However, my parents weren’t specifically religious. My nan, my mum’s mother, was religious, and that plus the general idea that all children were christened or baptised in the mid-80s is probably why I actually was. It was just the done thing.
I ended up joining the local church when I was 4 because a childhood friend and her family went and the Sunday club that she went to “sounded fun”. Yes, as an adult I now look back and recognise the blatant indoctrination, but this was also completely my decision. I stayed in the church up until I was about 14/15 (I’m not sure of the exact age). I left because to the church community, or more specifically the pastor’s wife, I had become an adult. I was expected to sit for hours long services and lap it all up, understanding it all, whereas for 10 years I had been doing arts, crafts and activities alongside others my age. The problem was that everyone else my age had left and there was a lack of adults willing to spend time with me in the role of ‘teacher’. I was basically abandoned. Just as I left my nan swapped to my church and my mum started attending alongside her, and eventually, my mum would end up staying a member of the church. I wonder, occasionally, if things had been different and I’d had family in the church whether they’d have made more of an effort. They certainly did for their own kids a few years later when they came of age and suddenly a youth group appeared.
I mention all this because Ava Reid also mentioned that this novel is about religious angst and as you can see, I have plenty of my own. I ended up finding my own way to paganism, and then with a friend exploring it further. Ever since I’ve identified as a neo-pagan and so a book with a pagan character at the centre really appeals to me. It’s not something I’ve come across before, and I am also not that familiar with Hungarian and Jewish folklore. While Reid has created her own folklores based on the originals I’m still eager to read something that uses mythologies that are new to me.
The Wolf and the Woodsman is a novel that delightfully discusses and interrogates the idea of what is belief, what happens when it changes and when that change is forced on society through the use of fantasy. Évike and Gáspár are thrown together in a situation where they must choose what is more important; their beliefs or their survival. Is it worth dying just to cling to those beliefs? At first Gáspár, a deeply devout follower of the Patrifaith is willing to do just that, whereas Évike’s pagan beliefs allow her to be a little bit more lenient. It isn’t her gods that call for her to avoid getting close to Gáspár it’s the blood on the hands of the Woodsmen, the Holy Order of soldiers that have claimed so many of her fellow wolf-girls for the King’s pleasure. Can she let go of her anger, of her disbelief in the hypocrisy of what Gáspár believes?
As the pair travel together they realise that there is something more important than the rift between them. Gáspár’s brother threatens the safety of both their homes and of Évike’s father’s people, the Yehuli, an indigenous religion under persecution. Nandor’s hatred for everyone outside the Patrifaith threatens to consume the entire nation in a religious war just as the Kingdom fights one at their border. No one would be spared, including Gáspár, the son of a foreign queen, and those loyal to him.
Let’s be clear about one thing; this is a fantasy novel but it talks about some very real and horrific topics. Fantasy is the lens in which Reid uses to examine real past historical events, particularly the brutal acts of a newfound patriarchal faith that washed away all other traditions and belief systems with blood to establish itself as the dominant religion. As with the Patrifaith in The Wolf and the Woodsman, it did so by intertwining religion with state and crown until it controlled everything. Modern societies still bear many hallmarks of those actions today. The dire consequences of such an act are optimised through the character of Nandor, Gáspár’s brother, a figure who has the power and presence to unit people in their hatred and faith to ensure that their country will be cleansed of anyone who does not follow their faith. It isn’t an idle threat or a promise, it’s a fact, with the blood of as many Yehuli as he can get away with already on Nandor’s hands.
The Yehuli already live in persecution, already fear the sound of the soldier’s footsteps when they celebrate their holy days and festivals. Likewise, the pagans have been cowed into conversion, forced into hiding or live under constant threat of one of their girls being taken by the Woodsmen. Neither community is a threat to the Patrifaith. They just want to be left to live their lives in peace, to continue the traditions as their ancestors have done for generations. It’s a sentiment that I think a lot of us can appreciate. Even more so we recognise the oppressing forces who will not just let us do that, who demand that we should do things their way, that what we do is wrong just because they do not understand it.
While I was reading some of The Wolf and the Woodsman, especially some of Évike and Gáspár’s conversations about the differences between their beliefs I was reminded of a similar conversation I once had at a religious panel. I was only 18 at the time and it was organised by the local council to get 6th form college students from various religions together to talk openly about their beliefs. It was predominantly Christians and it ended up being about 3-4 groups of them with one non-Christian in each group. As the only pagan there I was the one in my group, and they were shocked when I explained that we didn’t have a holy book or text. One girl asked me something like, “Well, how do you know what to do?!”
And reading The Wolf and the Woodsman I saw in Gáspár the same need for some controlling outside force to guide him, to show him the right way, likewise the same with Évike’s father and the other Yehuli. Their scrolls were integral to their belief. In comparison, the pagans have a fully oral storytelling based system and that is enough for them. They do not need ritual or the written word to reinforce their faith.
While The Wolf and the Woodsman is a brutal depiction of three religious communities and their differences, it is also the story of their similarities. While stories are the foundation of the pagan belief system each one has stories and this is just one overlap that Évike recognises as she learns more about them. Even as the Patrifaith shuns pagans she sees things that they do that aren’t that different to the villagers she’s left behind, not that they would ever admit it. Then there’s the blatant hypocrisy of a king who wants to use pagan magic to consolidate his power yet shuns the pagans of his country. I appreciated that Reid did not shy away from the stark truth, showing every repulsive act horrifically without any fairytale pretence.
Such as the relationship between Évike and Gáspár, which people have claimed was not romantic enough. If you read this novel and your takeaway from it was that there was not enough romance then you seriously missed the entire point of The Wolf and the Woodsman. I hesitate to even call it “romance” because romance conjures up a certain ideal and Évike and Gáspár’s relationship is one born from two people being thrown together in a stressful, horrible situation and realising they care for one another. They are running for their lives, trying to survive monsters and weather, and are the only people who can stop the genocide of two peoples. There’s no time for romance. It’s real life, and real life is messy, quick and whatever you can get when you can get it. I honestly would have lost a lot of respect for Reid if she had made a point of making it all fluffy and romantic because it would have made a mockery of everything else in the novel.
There was one part of The Wolf and the Woodsman that I didn’t like and that was the end. It felt as if the brutal and honest story had been given a fairytale ending and that just didn’t jive with what I got from the rest of the book. Throughout the novel, there was a constant theme of things not being easy, of having to fight for them and making sacrifices, and the ending just felt too easy. On the one hand, I wonder if that was Reid’s sacrifice for writing what is, I dare say, a very daring novel that puts the spotlight on the largest and most influential religion in the world. Perhaps like Évike she chose to choose her battles and settling for a fairytale-esque ending was the way to get this book published.
Who knows, I could be spouting utter nonsense, and while my dislike of the ending knocks The Wolf and the Woodsman down to a 4 star for me I would much rather be that little bit unhappy than NOT have this book exist in the world. I highly recommend it, especially to anyone who has ever felt alone and like the world has given up on them.
Over to you
Thank you for reading my review for The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid. This is Reid’s debut novel and it is due to be published in a few days! If this is anything to go by her writing career is going to be amazing as she has such a unique voice and has the daring to go there with her writing.
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