The Wolf and the Woodsman is a perfect book for winter, a delicious blend of The Bear and the Nightingale and The Witcher . It follows a twenty-five year old “wolf-girl” named Évike, a motherless girl who lives within a matriarchal tribe of warriors, magicians, and seers. However, their way of live has been deemed “pagan” by the devout king and his army of monster-hunting Woodsman, and every few years one of their number is plucked away by the king and taken to the capital to face an unknown fate.
This was a gorgeous, evocative tale. While the prose tended towards the purple; it was still lush and lifelike, evoking nighttime woods and the heavy silence of snow. I loved the dark fairy tale aspects of the the story the best; flesh-eating monsters in the marshes, witches made of clay lurking in the woods. Be warned, this is often a heavily gory tale, with descriptions of blood and violence as prevalent as rich depictions of snow and rain.
The tension between culture, religion, and identity is also powerfully explored in this novel. This was my second favorite part of the story, in no small part because as a half-jewish, half-catholic woman myself I am extremely familiar with the ideological and emotional struggles of being caught between two very different theologies. Even more poignant to me was Évike’s status as half Yehuli, a cultural group who directly parallel the Jewish people. Watching Évike learn about, grow to love, and integrate into her father’s culture while still feeling like an outsider looking in beautifully captured a feeling I have had all my life but struggle to describe.
Évike was an excellent protagonist. Brave and relatable, strong but vulnerable, her exploration of her identity was major draw of this novel. She is also a protagonist who thinks before she acts. Too often authors propel the plot with brash actions that border on nonsensical, but I enjoyed Évike’s evolution from impulsive to considerate, as she realizes the butterfly effects of her actions on those she cares for. A small note, I also LOVED having a protagonist who revels in her strength. Évike is not small or waif-like. She is described as broad and solid and strong, and as a broad solid and strong woman who is exhausted by fantasy women going on and on about how thin they are it was a refreshing to find one who felt more like me.
Unfortunately, none of the other characters stood out as strongly to me. I was most disappointed by the love interest, who revealed a layer or two of depth but for the most part felt flimsy and clichéd. Because of this I wasn’t especially invested in their romance, which caused several significant parts of the novel to drag. Overall, I thought this to be an introspective and ambitious novel that divided its focus just slightly too thin. While the romance didn’t wow me, the fabulous atmosphere will certainly linger on in my mind.
TW: physical violence, gore, antisemitism, vomiting, animal death, self-harm, body horror.