This summer, a fascinating novel evoking imagery from fairy tales likes Little Red Riding Hood arrived – but this one was a little different. Ava Reid’s The Wolf and the Woodsman explores Jewish mythology while leaning into Hungarian history. If you enjoyed Gabriela Houston’s The Second Bell or Katherine Arden’s The Winternight Trilogy or even Cat Valente’s Deathless, this one is for you. And it is a great book to curl up to with a hot cup of cocoa.
Whereas in many fantasy novels, the protagonist is marked out by having extraordinary abilities, not by their lack of them! Why did you want to take this approach?
The Wolf and the Woodsman is a book about exclusion, and I think this theme resonates in every aspect of the book. Évike is excluded from the stories that are told in her village, she’s bereft of the magic that should be her birthright, and she’s even literally given up as a sacrifice, shed like a dress that doesn’t fit. Évike struggles with her identity and where she belongs in the world in the same way that the nation of Régország struggles to define itself (yes, states have identities, and indeed identity crises, too). Both on a micro and macro level, this is a book about narrative, the violence it takes to create and maintain it, and the pain of exclusion from it.
Freedom of religion and escape from religious persecution is a strong theme in the novel. Why did you want to explore this theme? How did using a fantastical setting and paganism help/hinder your attempts to make social commentary in this respect?
Well, I wanted to include Jews in a fantasy world, which is pretty difficult to do without touching on themes of religious persecution. I’m not really interested in writing escapist fantasy (as I’m sure you can tell!) and I didn’t want to shy away from the truly painful histories of religious minorities in Europe.
I would have to say that the biggest difficulty in exploring this theme—and indeed incorporating aspects of Hungarian paganism at all—was the contemporary political context of it all. The Hungarian pagan revival movement is almost universally right-wing, ethnic nationalist, and antisemitic. They view pre-Christian Hungary as purer, unfettered by the presence of immigrants and ethnic minorities (even though this is utterly ahistorical). The turul is one of the symbols associated with the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian Nazi party. As a Jewish person, I knew people would have a problem with me writing this book from the get-go. And the choices I made were very much informed by the contemporary politics of Hungary. There’s a reason why Évike is an outcast even among the marginalized pagans, who are ultimately just as antisemitic as the larger Christian kingdom.
For some time, your main characters are travelling through a hostile land. What are some of your favourite tropes from this sort of epic fantasy quest style narrative?
Funnily enough, after I wrote The Wolf and the Woodsman I swore I was never going to write a “journey” book again (and indeed my second book is a claustrophobic gothic horror). I love exploring a sweeping landscape, all the opportunities for forced proximity between the main character and the love interest—and, really, being able to include so many different monstrous creatures. One of my favorite parts of writing is description and I’m a sucker for a good pastoral metaphor. I think “journey” books give a feeling of both breadth and depth of the world, which is why they’re so appealing (and also why they’re so difficult to write!)
Enemies to lovers is one of the oldest tropes out there – but we never seem to tire of it! Why is this such an enduring trope? Did you hope to bring anything new to it or subvert it in any way? Why did you want to use it?
I think there’s a version of The Wolf and the Woodsman where Évike really is a seer, someone who is gifted with extraordinary abilities and universally adored in her village, and who is tragically given up because they truly have no other choice. And Gáspár really is the golden prince, the chosen son, who hasn’t had his birthright taken from him (or his eye). That would still be an enemies-to-lovers romance, but it would miss something really crucial to the story I wanted to tell.
Ultimately, I wanted to tell a story about two outcasts who share a history of marginalization and exclusion and who understand each other’s pain. Both of them are torn between worlds, both of them are seen as somehow “lacking” (Gáspár quite literally missing an eye; Évike bereft of magic), and both have their bloodlines to blame for it. What I think is universally appealing about the enemies-to-lovers trope is that ultimately it’s about love conquering all. It’s about a connection so strong that it transcends bloodshed and bigotry and years of history and miles of territory. And I think in order for the trope to work, for the romance to be really compelling, you need that point of connection.
Évike is incredibly lonely at the outset of the book, and all she wants is someone who can understand her. She finds that person in Gáspár.
Pitch us The Wolf and the Woodsman! Why should we pick up a copy?
My typical elevator pitch for The Wolf and the Woodsman is that it’s a literary-leaning adult epic fantasy for fans of Naomi Novik and Katherine Arden, but based on Hungarian history and Jewish mythology. It has the eternally-adored enemies-to-lovers trope, coupled with lots of religious angst, a magic system based on body horror if you’re into that particular brand of fantasy, and I think it challenges and subverts a lot of assumptions about nationalism and nation-building in the genre. There’s also a kneeling scene that people seem to really enjoy—if you like your men tortured and pious (think Hot Priest from Fleabag), this is the book for you.
Ava Reid was born in Manhattan and raised right across the Hudson River in Hoboken, New Jersey, but currently lives in Palo Alto, California. She has a degree in political science from Barnard College, focusing on religion and ethnonationalism. She has worked for a refugee resettlement organization, for a U.S. senator, and, most recently, for an AI robotics startup. The Wolf and the Woodsman is her first novel.