This is an Adult Standalone book inspired by Jewish Folklore and Hungarian history.
In her forest-veiled pagan village, Évike is the only woman without power, making her an outcast clearly abandoned by the gods. The villagers blame her corrupted bloodline—her father was a Yehuli man, one of the much-loathed servants of the fanatical king. 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.
The Woodsman take one wolf girl every year and this year the villages sacrifice Evike to the Woodsman as she is barren - without the magic every other girl has. Being captured by the Woodsman usually means certain death however things take a turn when Evike makes a deal with Gáspár – the Prince turned Woodsman - to try and keep her people safe. Along the way Évike and Gáspár encounter monsters, magic, and some life changing moments.
The world created was so well thought out and I loved seeing how everything connected in the end. At first were given only the barest insight into the world and the experiences of our protagonist Évike but as the story unfolds and Évike begins to see more of the world so to do we. The world was oftentimes bleak and honestly it was what I imagine to be a pretty accurate representation of life in certain time periods in history with the brutality and forced faith and intolerance and fights for power. Essentially the story offers a rather a realistic representation of the oppression and marginalization experienced by ethnoreligious minorities. Of course, this was all done within a compelling fantasy world.
I enjoyed the characters and Évike was certainly a unique character to follow. She held a lot of spite and anger and was a great morally grey character. She evolved throughout but we do get to see some darker moments in her desire for the magic that had been denied to her. Her contrasting faith with the Woodsman played a large role in the story and I enjoyed watching Gáspár and Évike slowly compromise themselves to start to see the other person and their faith in a less hateful view. We also follow Évike on her road to discovering the part of her heritage that was lost to her. This identity aspect alongside the religious differences was interesting to read and well written.
I also loved the stories within stories aspect. We get so many different tales and myths from multiple different religious point of views which is an aspect of this story that I really enjoyed. It centres around Jewish folklore and Hungarian history and the way this was brought into the world created was very interesting. The plot centres around the powerplays of the king and his sons, one of whom wants to usher in a new age starting with a cultural and ethnic cleansing. The book was therefore full of the violence of zealots and the unmitigated hate and ignorance of one side against the other - something that resonates today as it does throughout history, and I think the author did this really well.
However, whilst I did love the world, the concept and could appreciate the artful way this book was written, overall, it fell a bit flat for me. I found it slower than I would have liked and whilst the plot did push forward constantly, we were never quite sure what exactly it is the characters are aiming for. The whole book mostly consists of the characters journeying around -and whilst I enjoyed getting to know the world, there was a lot of back and forth and travelling isn’t the most exciting of activities. My favourite section of the book was when the characters were in the city which was far more compelling to me than the endless journeys which ultimately achieved little other than a change of the characters’ perspectives.
I also didn’t connect to the characters as much as I normally would. I liked them and I understood their motivations and feelings but there was just something missing for me that held me back from truly connecting with them.
It was complex and well put together story about some important themes in a unique fantasy inspired world. I did enjoy it a lot, it just fell a little flat for me regarding the slower plot and lack of connection. The ending was good, and the epilogue was great. This is a difficult one to rate because it is very well written, and I loved the concept and all the history and folklore wrapped up into the world. I want to rate it 4 stars as I feel as though the story could have been more. But the pacing and lack of connection pulled it down for me. However, I will happily read more from this author in the future as her writing was excellent especially for a debut book!
Rating: 3.75 stars
Read if you like:
Folkore (Jewish) and storytelling
Books based on history (Hungarian history)
Darker Adult fantasy
Books with important underlying themes
Religious and cultural tension
Forced proximity of love interests
Royalty and power plays
It was a good read but if you do read it be prepared for more of a darker book!
(TW: Gore, mutilation and Violence)