How important is a story to you? Important enough to hear? What about important enough to learn, so that you can tell it again? Is it important enough to preserve—important enough to write down, if you know how to write, important enough to recite if you can’t?
Important enough to die for, to kill for? Important enough to live for?
Ava Reid’s debut The Wolf and the Woodsman is replete with the kinds of stories that endure. It gives the book more heft, more weight than its 400-odd pages imply, layering pagan myth and Jewish history into the already-dense weave of religion, politics, history, and landscape that make up the book’s fantastical setting. The result is like a lacquered painting, forever revealing new depths with every new angle, telling us not just new stories, but revealing hard truths about the nature of story itself.
Stories about pain can ease suffering. Stories about bravery can inspire courage. But our personal narratives can go the other way, too: they can reinforce our worst fears and impulses, keeping us trapped in cycles of violence and hate.
Évike, the main character of The Wolf and the Woodsman, has a story that she tells about herself: that she’s spiteful and bad and largely worthless. It’s the same story that her village tells about her about herself, after all, since she has no magic and she has Yehuli (this book’s version of the Jewish people) blood. She rages against this version of herself, but at her core, she accepts it in the same way that she accepts her place as the annual sacrifice to the distant king. She thinks her story will be that of a girl who saves her page tribe, even temporarily, but as events conspire to change small things about her journey, she begins to realize she may have the power to undermine what she was led to believe was her fate.
Gáspár has a story too, the dutiful heir who must work within systems if he is to have power, whether the monarchal system of his father’s government or the puritanical confines of his faith. He is cautious where Évike is reckless and pious where Évike is provocative, but at his core, he too is an abused youth shunned for his mixed parentage.
Their lives are opposed but their stories are so similar, and it doesn’t take long before they both begin to see it. The romance is a deliciously dark enemies-to-lovers burn, with plenty of inherent drama, no contrived misunderstandings necessary. Évike and Gáspár have a lot to overcome in order to simply coexist; the romance, while inevitable, is nonetheless skillfully accomplished. The difficulties Évike and Gáspár face are both personal and political, with trauma as much of an impediment as it is a sad source of common ground for the two. Fortunately, they also have in common their desire to repair the world, a shared goodness that shines through both of them despite their darker impulses and their sniping.
But will the world let them? Supernatural horrors abound, an enemy masses at the border, and a religious fanatic stirs up mobs, giving them scapegoats instead of solutions. The Wolf and the Woodsman will, inevitably, draw comparison to Spinning Silver and the Grisha books, mostly because of the Eastern European and Jewish elements. I will say that there’s a bit of Shadow and Bone about one strand of the plot, a desperate quest to find a mythic creature that Évike and Gáspár think will give them the power to thwart a great evil. The king is also weak and hedonistic, oblivious to the threat posed by a rising tide of discontent within the kingdom and factions within his nobility. However, The Wolf and the Woodsman is entirely its own story, taking intercultural and interreligious tension as its themes rather than detailing a single fable.
There are moments when The Wolf and the Woodsman’s characters feel subjected to the plot instead of generating it. A mob, whipped into a fury by a preternaturally gifted speaker, nevertheless leaves its intended victims alone. A girl marked for execution nevertheless becomes an advisor and bodyguard. These decisions would make more sense if given either more interiority from the characters or less dire tension, but the threat of mass murder hangs over absolutely everything, making every choice seem like the most fraught decision ever. It becomes a bit fatiguing to leap from dire straight to even more dire straight without a sustaining sense of triumph or humor. Is it fair to critique a story about religious and cultural persecution for being too grim? Perhaps not, but it’s still difficult to read after an unrelentingly grim year (and years before that).
Tender moments with the Yehuli are some of the most memorable because of their gentleness relative to the book’s otherwise harsh realities. The cold and the forests, the Patricians and the pagans, everyone and everything trying to kill everyone and everything else makes the warmth of Yehuli homes and stories burn all the brighter.
I thought the villains were a bit over the top at first, but that’s actually a consequence of their believing their own stories. Like Évike and Gáspár, the king and his bastard, Nandor, were fed a narrative of expectations and prohibitions, a tangle that eventually snares them as much as anyone else. It’s a brilliant turn, and I wish we’d had even more time to see the destructive effect of story.
The superb worldbuilding and thoughtfully counterbalancing tensions, though, carry the narrative through any slightly rough spots, as does the remarkable prose. Never effusive but always evocative, I’ve dogeared more than two dozen pages just so that I can go back to savor certain phrases and lines. It deserves a full re-read too, since I’m sure I didn’t fully appreciate its dense interweave of stories. Some books—especially fantasy books—have what I call the Peter Jackson Problem, drawing out every last bit of tension until the whole story goes permanently slack instead of snapping. This is the opposite. The Wolf and the Woodsman is stuffed so full of plot threads and character work that it could have comfortably been another 100 pages long. It perhaps should have been another 25 to 50 pages. Reid needed to give the narrative a bit more room to breathe, needed to hold up each character to the light some more and consider them from additional angles. Put another way: her characters are all very multifaceted, her world dense and rich, and I wanted to spend more time with all of it. I wanted to understand more, to see more. I hope that in future novels she gives us lots more—of this and whatever other worlds she dreams up.
The Wolf and the Woodsman will be published June 8th.