Woodsy Folklore With Some Debut Problems: Ava Reid – The Wolf and the Woodsman

This was one of my most anticipated debuts of the year, alongside another wolf-titled book with a forest setting and a romance. I haven’t yet read the second book (For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten) but I liked this one a lot, despite its flaws. It’s not the right book when you want to be surprised by the plot, but it weaves layers of folklore and mythology into a fantasy story with a nice slow-burn romance. Debut problems aside, I enjoyed it.

by Ava Reid

Published: DelRey, 2021
448 pages
My rating:

Opening line: The trees have to be tied down by sunset. When the Woodsmen come, they always try to run.

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.

Évike lives in her village as an outsider. The only girl her age who doesn’t have either of the three magic powers, she is constantly bullied and has nobody who really loves her. She lives with the village seer who treats her more like a maid than a surrogate daughter and when the Woodsmen come – as they do to take one magical girl to the capital – Évike is promptly shoved at them as a sacrifice. After all, they don’t have to know that this year’s wolf-girl isn’t actually magical…

What follows is part road movie, part romance, part folklore and mythology, and I liked parts of each of these aspects, but none of them were perfect. Évike soon has to team up with one of the Woodsmen, Gáspar, who thinkgs of her as a pagan who will go straight to hell. She, in turn, finds him uncomfortably attractive but is aware that their religious and cultural clash will never lead to anything. You see where this is going, don’t you? And I was all there for the romance, these two people who clearly have the hots for each other but are held back by convention and societal expectations and belief. There’s plenty of yearning, an excellent use of the “only one bed” trope, and some heart-stopping moments that made me ship them hard.

The plot is another matter. It starts off strong, then drfits off into an episodic travelogue, then tries itselfa t political court drama, but all of it is done a bit hamfisted. There doesn’t ever seem to be any one plot thread, the story doesn’t know what it wants to achieve. Is it a Romeo and Juliet like romance with two seemingly opposing religious groups? Is it about a mad prince who is conniving his way to the throne in a very un-subtle way? Is it about a young girl whose parents came from different cultures, learning about who she is and who she wants to be? Is it about a mythical bird that gives you immense power when you capture it? About Yehuli people being treated like dirt in the big city? It’s all of that but only ever a little of each, and only one after the other. To me, this feels like something that could have been fixed during the editing process. A bit of foreshadowing here, some world building there, less repetition and more in depth exploration of the cultures that oppose each other in this story… it would have gone a long way.

The writing was better, but also had its flaws. Ava Reid is perfectly capable of showing instead of telling and she does so a lot of the time. Except she doesn’t seem to trust her readers because after showing us something, she proceeds to also tell us, sometimes several times in a row. Both dialogue and narration were rife with repetition, sometimes using the exact same words. There’s no need to re-explain a scene we have just witnessed to us. Your writing is good enough – we got it the first time.
There were also continuity mistakes in the book concerning a missing finger. In one scene it is described as being on the left hand, but then it switches merrily back and forth between left and right throughout the book. That’s just an unnecessary mistake that took me out of the reading flow and could have easily been caught by an editor.
Lastly, I got the feeling that everything happend too fast. Our characters would get into trouble, facing some cool foe or being in danger somehow, and half a page later it would already be resolved. I enjoyed those scenes, the action-packed moments that usually meant confronting some mythological being and I would have liked actually getting into them. Maybe the author thought she should keep her word count down or maybe this is just the way she likes telling stories but it kept me from truly immersing myself in this world. I can’t believe I’m saying this but I also wouldn’t have minded more descriptions of the landscape and atmosphere, or making the world feel lived-in. I mean, the book starts with moving trees! Trees that pick up their roots and get out of there whenever Woodsmen come by. That awesome piece of world building, that really cool idea, is never mentioned again, has no impact on the world or story, and thus left me more than a little disappointed.

What was really well done – apart from the romance – was how folklore, myth, magic, religion, and culture are woven together. Whether it’s Évike telling an unwilling but taciturn Gáspar a story about her gods, or her learning about Yehuli life in the capital, I found all of these parts intriguing and magical in their own way.
I also enjoyed how Évike grows into herself. She is not particularly likeable at first. Sure, when your village sacrifices you because you’re their least valuable member, you have every right to be pissed. But she is bitchy and petty and annoying even shen she should be grateful or at least a little kinder. Then again, she’s also aware that she’s being petty and she actually reflects upon her actions and words and, you know, grows as a person! And as the story progresses and she realizes she isn’t actually all alone in this world, we get to see another side of her. One that wants nothing more than a family and a place to belong.

If I’m completely honest, this book has a lot of debut problems, there are mistakes that simply don’t need to be there. The plot is a mess, many things could have been done better, BUT it has a really great romance and a lot of heart – plus the use of Jewis folklore in fantasy is something I haen’t seen done before. For some reason, I didn’t mind the amateurish storytelling so much because the book has other strengths. And while it’s far from perfect, it makes me want to read more by this author. I have a feeling she has more stories to tell. With more experience (and a careful editor) I’m pretty sure the next book could even be a new favorite.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good


3 thoughts on “Woodsy Folklore With Some Debut Problems: Ava Reid – The Wolf and the Woodsman

  1. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    Good to know! I do want to read more SFF books that draw on Jewish folklore or even just have Jewish protagonists — Naomi Novik’s whetted my appetite for it. And honestly, it does sound like this author was poorly served by her editor, which is always disappointing.


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