The Wolf and the Woodsman is Ava Reid’s debut novel. This fantasy draws its inspiration from the early medieval history of Hungary: the name of the land where the story is set, Régország, is a pair of Hungarian words that could be translated as “long-ago country.” It draws, too, from the history of Jewish people in Hungary. It would seem to fit comfortably into the recent tradition of Eastern European fantasy, a tradition that has its most popular and most iconic examples to date in Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Spinning Silver, though other examples range from Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale to Rena Rossner’s Sisters of the Winter Wood and Ursula Vernon’s (writing as T. Kingfisher) The Raven and the Reindeer. The Wolf and the Woodsman is fiercer and more viscerally bloody than Novik’s work: an impressive debut.
Even if its climactic battle seems to arrive practically out of nowhere.
Note: This review discusses the novel’s conclusion in detail that some might consider spoilers.
Évike is a young woman from a village under the shadows of an old forest, the Ezer Szem. Her village holds to pagan ways, from the time before the kings of Régország turned to the Prinkepatrios faith (an unsubtle Christianity analogue), and every woman in it has some form of magical power. Every woman, that is, but Évike. The villagers blame her outsider-father’s blood: he was a man of the Yehuli people, who serve the king as tax-collectors and metal workers.
Every year or so, warriors from the Order of Woodsmen arrive at the village and claim a woman from the village for the king. That woman never returns. This time, the king wants a seer. The villagers send Évike, instead: a deception to preserve a more valuable life.
On the way to the capital, the Woodsmen are attacked by the monsters who dwell in the land. Only Évike and the one-eyed captain survive. The captain is Bárány Gáspár, the king’s only legitimate son. Born from a foreign princess, Gáspár is an outsider to many of his own people, despised by his father. His zealous—and popular—bastard brother, Nandor, is seen as a saint by many, and Gáspár fears that Nandor will overthrow their father and seize the throne. The king himself is not secure in his rule: his military strength is spent in border wars, and he uses pagan magic, stolen from the village women, to shore up his power at home. Gáspár believes that only with more pagan magic—a different, more powerful kind of pagan magic, the ability to see many possible futures—can his father hold on to his throne. And not incidentally, prevent Nandor from overseeing a slaughter of the pagan and the Yehuli communities. Évike finds herself convinced—mostly—by Gáspár’s arguments, and together they trek into the far north, and back to the capital. Along the way, they find that they have a lot in common. Their childhood trauma as unwanted victims of their parent and parent-figure’s abuse not least among them. Is it a romance, or two desperate and desperately lonely people looking for connection? And does it matter?
In the capital, Évike reconnects with her estranged father, and learns both of his magic and her heritage, and how much a king’s promises are worth.
And then a bloody confrontation comes out of apparently nowhere, as pagan warriors launch a successful attack on the capital just as Nandor strikes a blow for his coup. In the aftermath, apparently, Gáspár and Évike come out on top, and everything’s better for everyone. It’s a startling simple resolution, this pagan attack, and one not much heralded by anything else in the novel, which is otherwise entirely driven, emotionally and practically, by Évike and Gáspár’s choices. It makes the whole experience somewhat less satisfying than it might have been.
The Wolf and the Woodsman is a richly imagined novel, atmospheric and compelling. Évike is an interesting protagonist, one who tries almost against her will to do, if not the right thing, then at least the least wrong thing. She’s appealing—the whole novel is appealing—and Reid’s voice is fluent and assured. But in my view it rather falls apart at the climax. That’s not unusual for a debut, and doesn’t make it any less worth reading, but it does spoil some of my enjoyment.
On the whole, an entertaining, appealing, and strikingly imagined novel. I recommend it, with caveats.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. She was a finalist for the inaugural 2020 Ignyte Critic Award, and has also been a finalist for the BSFA nonfiction award. Find her on Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.