Look, I had high hopes for this book. Really high hopes. I mean, I put it on my 5-star-prediction list, just to let you know that I went into this convinced I would love it. Unfortunately – and I’m very much not alone in that assessment – it ended up being a hot mess that should never have made it into print in its current form. This review will be more like a cathartic rant than anything else.
FOR THE WOLF
by Hannah Whitten
Published: Orbit, 2021
eBook: 488 pages
Series: Wilderwood #1
My rating: 2.5/10
Opening line: Two nights before she was sent to the Wolf, Red wore a dress the color of blood.
THE FIRST DAUGHTER IS FOR THE THRONE.
THE SECOND DAUGHTER IS FOR THE WOLF.
As the only Second Daughter born in centuries, Red has one purpose – to be sacrificed to the Wolf in the Wood in order to save her kingdom. Red is almost relieved to go. Plagued by a dangerous power she can’t control, at least she knows that in the Wilderwood, she can’t hurt those she loves. Again.
But the legends lie. The Wolf is a man, not a monster. Her magic is a calling, not a curse. And if she doesn’t learn how to use it, the Wilderwood – and her world – will be lost forever.
Hannah Whitten’s New York Times bestselling debut is a sweeping tale of love, legends and the secrets that hide beyond the trees.
There are so many things wrong with this book, I hardly know where to start. The most glaring plotholes? The flat self-insert characters? The obvious villain? The shoddy world-building? The inconsistencies? The melodramatic writing and dialogue? The complete and utter lack of story? You see, we’re spoiled for choice here. Oh well, I’ll just dive in and spill it all out in whatever way – that’s how the author did it as well, after all.
So Red – short for Redarys – and Neve – short for Neverah – are two royal sisters who live in Valleyda, a country that borders the Wilderwood. Many centuries ago, some dude fled into the wood with his girlfriend who was betrothed to a man she didn’t want to mary. They kind of ended up stuck in the forest and the dude, forthwith called the Wolf for no discernible reason whatsoever, lives in that forest. He brings his dead girlfriend to the border and demands “the next one” and from that day on, when two daughters are born to the ruling family, the first is for the throne, the second is “for the wolf” (roll credits). The reasons for this are unclear and – this isn’t a spoiler but a warning – are NEVER PROPERLY EXPLAINED! Neither does anyone ever explain why this magical dude whose name I have forgotten already is called a Wolf, what precisely he does with those second daughters and what the point of anything is, really.
Oh well, that’s only half-true. You see, Valleyda has a religion based on the “Five Kings” which are five random Kings from the time the Wolf went into the forest. They were apparently taken by evil Wolf guy and now people send the second daughters to the Wolf to get those five kings back. Why? Nobody knows. Who decided that the second daughters were supposed to be a trade for the five kings? Nobody knows. Who even were those kings, why would we want them to return and wouldn’t they be zombies after hundreds of years anyway? Nobody knows. Because Hannah Whitten hasn’t actually done any worldbuilding that isn’t absolutely necessary to tell us the kind of story she apparently wanted to tell.
Which is no story at all but rather throwing two bland characters together and having them be melodramatic at each other. Seriously, nothing about this book makes sense. So let’s ignore that there’s no reason for this ridiculous religion to exist and follow Red as she enters the Wilderwood as a sacrifice. She brings the clothes on her back and a BAG OF BOOKS! I mean, I feel you girl, I love reading too but come on, you were certain you were going straight to your death, why the fuck would you bring a heavy bag full of books??? Do you think the Wolf – who you’re convinced is going to kill you on sight – is going to let you finish that series you started before he offs you?
Either way, she arrives at the Beast’s castle, and who’d have thought, the Wolf/Beast turns out to be hot young man who, despite being hundreds of years old, looks like he’s twenty so it’s Twilight all over and we’re all okay with it because apparently that’s just the sort of thing some people find sexy. What follows is hundreds of pages of nothing. There is no fucking conflict because Red has it pretty sweet at that place, Eammon (the “Wolf”) is a bit distant because he’s emo and just wants to keep her safe and sacrifice himself for the world because he’s just that pure of heart. Red shows no initative, doesn’t do anything, basically just exists in a state of stubborn uselessness and moons over Eammon’s sexy dark hair.
Then there’s the whole magic “system”. None of that makes any sense, it always behaves in such a way as to be convenient to the author’s wishes. If she wants Red to be heroically saved by Eammon – who is super emo martyr guy and nothing else, by the way – then the forest is bad. If she wants Red to do something useful for once, the forest magic works completely differently and helps. A tiny point of interest was the event that happend on Red’s 16th birthday where apparently she had an adventure at the edge of the Wilderwood that ended in “carnage” and made her resign herself to her fate as a sacrifice. That carnage is explained in a few sentences and is actually super boring, doesn’t add anything to the plot, and explains absolutely nothing about how the magic here works. But whatever, afterwards, Red has some piece of Wilderwood inside of her? Plants go crazy when she feels that power, sometimes they want to kill her, sometimes not? It’s an evil power but also totally good because the Wilderwood and the Wolf actually protect the world from a bigger evil… Don’t ask me for details, there aren’t any and what little is explained makes no sense. And for the ending to be properly cheesy and disgustingly sweet, every single rule that has been sort of set up over this long, long novel, is just thrown overboard. Because we can’t have anything be complicated in this supposedly adult fantasy novel.
Which leads me to another gripe. The author herself was very adamant about this being “not YA”! First of all, YA is not an insult. Some of the most amazing books in the world are YA books and YA authors are not to be looked down upon – seriously, keeping a teenager interested in a book is a feat! Secondly, if you wanted to write an adult novel so badly, why the hell didn’t you? Apart from its plotlessness, this book doesn’t just read like YA, it reads like really, really bad YA. The kind where you know the author just wants to write about two pretty people making out but doesn’t actually have anything to say or a story to tell. I can see her Pinterest mood board in my mind, with all the foresty dark bookish aesthetics and the scarred hero with the sexy hair and the curvy blonde heroine (who just happens to look a lot like the author herself) – but none of that is a story.
What you get is the girl going in the forest, meeting a handful of nice people there. They protect the world from some evil that makes no sense using magic that makes no sense and being so fucking good it makes my teeth ache. Eammon is pure self-sacrifice, he would die rather than let Red get hurt because, after all, he’s known her for a whole week so that’s only natural. In bad YA trope land. Red herself is also a total Mary Sue who only wants to protect her sister – a relationship which isn’t shown on the page at all, by the way, we’re just supposed to feel this super deep love between two cardboard characters whose defining characteristic is their difference in hair color.
The biggest problem of this book (and that’s saying something) is its utter lack of conflict. Even the short scenes where Eammon saves Red or Red saves Eammon never feel like they’re in any real danger. That entire good forest/bad forest, Shadowlands (what even are those?!), Five Kings, fake mythology crap is just in no way interesting. Red isn’t in danger, Eammon is in pretend-danger but we know nothing’s going to happen to him because the entire point of this story is the mind-numbing romance between them. And calling it “slow burn” is insulting to the readers’ intelligence. Because “nothing happening” and the characters just not talking or interacting in any way does not equal slow burn. It equals boring. Then suddenly, they’re hot for each other, make out a couple of times and of course would DIE FOR EACH OTHER BECAUSE REASONS. Waaaah, it’s so infuriatingly bad.
Ooooh, and speaking of the sister. Neve is still in Valleyda and she wants her sister back. We don’t know why as their relationship was never really established, but hey, let’s just go with it. Neve meets the most obvious and ridiculous villain you can imagine – again, this is for adult adults who are so much smarter than stupid teenagers, let’s not forget it because women authors don’t automatically write YA – and then just lets herself be manipulated into stupid crap. She also watches uselessly as the manipulative evil priestess clearly kills off all the people standing in her way. Neve is so dumb, even if the sisterly relationship had felt in any way real, I couldn’t have rooted for her.
The writing is at least consistent with the quality of the book’s plot. Endless repetitions, wannabe poetic descriptions, but really very basic non-immersive language is what you get. Characters constantly shape their fingers into claws, move their hand over their faces, Red’s veins always turn green because forest magic, and even the many, many mentions of blood feel completly lifeless. I suppose that’s the author’s reasoning for this book being so very adult – because although our protagonists have fucking magic, what they do the entire middle part of the book is bleed on trees. Yep, you read that right. And as someone who is clumsy and has cut herself fairly frequently with kitchen knives, let me tell you, it’s no fun. It hurts, it stings, it bleeds like a pig, and it keeps burning long after the blood has stopped coming. The bleeding and cutting in this book felt like it’s nothing. Eammon’s hands are basically nothing but scars because he keeps cutting them and bleeding around like it’s a vampire party. And sure, if mentions of blood are a trigger for you, then definitely stay away from this book. But if you generally don’t have a problem with reading about blood and worry that this will be too gruesome – don’t. The descriptions are so lifeless, so throwaway, that you never, for a second, feel like you’re there or like anyone really got hurt. Plus, there’s convenient healing/taking away wounds magic.
You might wonder why I even finished this book and you have a very valid point! The first time I thought about DNFing was at 25% which was about when Red and Eammon met and the basic plot (or lack thereof) had been set up. At that point already, there was nothing I wanted to know. You know that feeling when you read a book or watch a movie or TV show – the need to know what happens next – that was missing here. I kept pushing because 25% is not much and it was a 5-star-prediction after all. Plus, Beauty and the Beast retelling, magical dark wood, comparisons to Naomi Novik and Katherine Arden (which are a fucking insult to both those brilliant authors, if you ask me). It only got worse from there but once I was past 50% I thought I might as well finish it, see if any of those world building “mysteries” get resolved, if anything is explained, if there is a point to this rather big book at all. Now that I’ve made it through this messy author wish fulfillment, I can safely say, it wasn’t worth it. Feel free to skip!
MY RATING: 2.5/10 – Really bad!
P.S.: I just started a re-read of The Poppy War and it is the most soothing experience to read something so good after something this embarrassing and amateurish!