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.
Thank you to NetGalley and Del Rey Books for the free eARC in exchange for an honest review.
The Wolf and the Woodsman opens in a familiar way; once a year, a girl from the village is taken by the King to maintain peace between the two groups. The story that follows, however, is anything but worn out. Instead of being the one powerful girl among her people, as many stories in this vein might go, Évike is the only one who seems to be barren, not blessed by their gods with the power to heal, or summon flame, or forge metal through song, or see visions of the future. For this, she has been mocked and despised by the other girls her entire life, and even the old seer she lives with, Virág, who took her in after her mother was taken by the Woodsmen, does not treat her kindly.
So, when Virág sees that the Woodsmen are coming for a seer, she dresses Évike up as one and sends her in place of Katalin, her main tormentor, so that the village will not remain without foresight. Before they even reach the capital, however, Évike and the Woodsmen are attacked by the monsters that roam the great forest of Ezer Szem, and only her and the Captain survive. Except, in that moment, each realises the other is not what they seem: Évike is no seer, and Gáspár is no captain, but is the true-born prince of Régország.
A tenuous alliance ensues, as Gáspár does not have the skills to survive alone in the wild, and Évike does not want to risk another being taken from her village if she were to run away. Together, the two of them journey to the North, in search of a creature that may grant the king power to see the future, allowing him to win the war that is ravaging the country, and appeasing the masses who have begun to turn to Nándor, Gáspár’s half-brother, who is plotting to seize the throne. Through this and other ventures, the wolf-girl and the Woodsman realise that, perhaps, there is not so great a difference between them as they first thought.
‘I remember how the fire roared to life in front of the captain, so sudden and sure. Any wolf-girl would have marvelled at such a fire, easily as impressive as the work of out best fire-makers. We would have called it power, magic. They called it piety. But what is the difference, if both fires burn just as bright?’
This story certainly does not pull its punches. It is exquisitely written, each sentence crafted perfectly, suffused with myth and story, yet so much of this world is pain and violence. This certainly reflects Évike’s experience; her life has been full of pain and neglect. She is the only daughter of the village without power, and she is the only one who’s father was not a village man, but a Yehuli tax collector. And though she did not always love the stories told to her by Virág because she feels they do not belong to her, she uses them during her long journey with Gáspár, telling him of her gods and heroes, and using those stories to give herself strength.
I really loved reading all the short tales embedded within the book, and I loved the way they all come from different cultural points but still have many overlapping elements. Gáspár’s faith, for example, is the Patrifaith which worships one God and is the enforced religion of the kingdom, but its founder was a pagan-born man. Évike’s people are pagans, and they pray to multiple gods. The Yehuli are also considered pagan by the Patricians, but they also worship one God, and they are the ethnoreligious group based on the Jewish people. From what I understand, a lot of the elements of the story also draw on Hungarian history and mythology, and though I am not familiar with it, it was still a joy to discover. What I also enjoyed was the way each of these faiths is given credit – there is not one that is disproven, but each group who believes in the blessing of their deity is rewarded with power.
There was a part of the story that lost me for a while, because in the middle of it it didn’t feel as if there was much of a plot, and what there was didn’t seem to me to have any possible resolution that could be at all satisfying. Without spoilers, I will say that I was pleasantly wrong. The ending is not perfectly happy, but I think it was perfectly fitting to Évike’s story, and I really enjoy the way we get a glimpse of the future of the characters while still being able to imagine the rest.
Overall this was an evocative read, full of darkness and full of hope. Tender despite the cruelty of the world, and just as the characters learn to find tenderness in unlikely places, after a life of shame and neglect, this book brings forth little pieces of light in the obscurity of the haunted woods, and takes you on an adventure through myth and history along the way.
Published: 8th June 2021
Genre: fantasy, folklore
Narration style: first person, present tense
Format read: eARC
Copy owned: no
Trigger Warnings: gore, body horror, torture, animal death, self harm, antisemitism, ethnic cleansing, abuse by parents