All of them loved like burning, no thought for the ashes.
this is me, being thrown to the wolves.
we know wolves are tricksy creatures—those big baddies huffing and puffing and salivating in your granny’s jammies, tucked in her bed and ready to wolf you down. we know what to expect from wolves, and so we avoid them. but even tricksier are the wolves in the sheep’s clothing of deceptive cover design; the marketing campaigns who cry
wolf dark fantasy, making you think you’re gonna get a tooth-baring rework of little riding hood only to reveal it’s really beauty and the botanical-beast under that red cloak, all the better to deceive you with, my dears.
let’s make one thing perfectly clear—this is not dark fantasy. this is romantic fantasy. and i do not like romantic fantasy.
this review will reflect my displeasure, but if YOU like romantic fantasy, you’ll enjoy this book more than my review.
redarys (red for short) and her twin sister neverah (neve) have grown up knowing what fate has in store for them: neve, the firstborn, will eventually ascend to the throne, while red, as the second daughter, is destined ‘for the wolf,’ which means when she turns twenty and a special mark appears on her arm, she will be brought to the wilderwoods as an offering to the mysterious wolf, in the hopes that he will be so pleased with this sacrifice that he will release the five kings, who have been imprisoned within the wilderwood since olden times. it’s all very shrouded in mystery, since it’s been hundreds of years since a second daughter has existed to be sacrificed, and no one ever came back from the woods, daughters or kings or etc, but traditions are traditions and must be upheld.
from the synopsis, we know that nothing is as advertised:
But the legends lie. The Wolf is a man, not a monster. Her magic is a calling, not a curse. And if she doesn’t learn how to use it, the monsters the gods have become will swallow the Wilderwood—and her world—whole.
and that’s all true, but what the synopsis doesn’t tell you is that the reason red doesn’t know how to use her magic is because the wolf, the man—eammon, as it happens—is not particularly forthcoming about explaining her role in any of this—the nature of her responsibilities or her purpose now that she’s essentially trapped in the woods with him.
since she can’t go back home, red drifts aimlessly through her days, occasionally assisting eammon in his efforts to maintain the balance of the wilderwoods, but in a limited capacity due to all the withheld information. there are other people living on this side of the woods, all equally perplexed by his decision to keep her from fulfilling her duty, and with nothing to do, the story gets dull and repetitive and obscure because eammon’s not giving her any guidance or agency, so it’s no wonder, really, that she spends most of her time just staring at his eyes and his throat and his hands, describing his features and mannerisms over and over, to the extent that while we don’t understand the magic of the world or the importance of the kings, boy do we know how eammon’s hair curls and how he smells. spoiler alert: he smells like a library. which, here, doesn’t mean that he smells like the BO and dust of an actual library, but that he smells like paper. paper and coffee and the cinnamon smell of leaves, whatever that means.
meanwhile, we have neve’s storyline back home, in which she is ALSO told “things are not how you thoooooought,” but given a THIRD explanation slash half-articulated course of action by a different cadre of agenda-concealing parties, whose actions are seesawing the balance away from whatever eammon’s doing from inside the wilderwoods.
and it’s all too much. too much to keep straight, not knowing what’s true and what’s manipulation and what’s the math on how many half-truths equal one reasonable explanation?
red’s side of the story is boring. for at least two-thirds of the book she has no idea what she’s doing; she’ll stumble into something and it’ll seem like a reasonable time for an explanation to be forthcoming, but then it will retreat back into meaningful looks and innuendo and careful not-telling and there’s only so much snorting and sighing and amber eyes ringed with green a reader can take before wanting something a little more…substantive.
it has everything i don’t like about romance—it’s swollen with blasons repetitively inventorying every part of the love interest’s physical self, and so much of it is exaggerated and cartoony, like everyone’s afflicted with tardive dyskinesia: eyes are always widening, hands are always spasming, breathing is always ragged or hitching, voices are always hoarse, smiles are always quirked, brows are always arched, fingers are always crooking, backs are always arching, throats are always working—it’s a goofy parade of twitching tics like nicolas cage at a wall street coke party in the 80s, and it’s all so contrived and uninspired it bums me out.
actually, forget mr. cage—toss a pacifier and some adidas in the mix and this reads exactly like a couple leaving a rave at 6 am coming down offa their ecstasy high:
Still, Eammon paused next to her, a muscle feathering in his jaw, a swallow working down his throat. Pain carved lines beside his mouth and made his shoulders stiff—the roots knotted around his spine tightening, pulling him back toward the gloom of his forest. It might let him go, on its northern border, but it wouldn’t let him forget where he belonged.
Her lip worked between her teeth.
it’s hard for me to accept as a romantic figure some guy who won’t give a girl a straight answer.
“I don’t know if you’re trying to protect me, or if you just don’t want to bother telling me anything.” Her hands curled and released, loose fists that held nothing. “But I can only help you as much as you let me, Eammon.”
that is on page TWO HUNDRED AND SIXTY-FIVE. we are 165 pages from the end of the book and our heroine is still in the dark. every time we’re close to getting an explanation of How This Works, it’s buried in unnecessary, unearned sexual tension:
“In order to keep the Shadowlands from leaking through—in order to keep the wall strong—we have to put the sentinels back where they’re supposed to be. When we heal them, they return to their place.”
“So how do we heal them?”
“Directing magic to drive back the rot.”
“Through touch, I assume.” She didn’t know why it came out so low, so hoarse.
Eammon’s shoulders went rigid, his own answer graveled. “Yes.”
okay, but what about them sentinels, though? so, sometimes they’re healed by magic and sometimes by blood? can you speak more about these shadowlands and shadow-rot and kings and why you’re all full of plants inside? we get that you’re hot for each other and resisting it, but can we get a little more clarity about anything else? it’s confusing and also unhygienic—the magic of keeping the evil at bay involves eammon and red cutting themselves; slicing their hands and grinding their lacerations in the dirt because magic, but what about the magic of infection? so much time is spent rhapsodizing over eammon’s scarred hands and how their rough texture feels against red’s softgirl skin, but maybe if you care about someone, you sacrifice your scar-fetish and offer them some antiseptic ointment or cream for their filthy bleeding wounds?
the romance is just…dumb. childish.
“I dug through the storerooms and found an old pair you can have. I left them by the fireplace.” He glanced over his shoulder, brow quirked, then faced the tower again. “They won’t fit, but that didn’t stop you with my shirt.”
“It was too cold to be naked.”
He didn’t turn, but his hand spasmed by his side, and he made a choked noise. Behind him, Red grinned.
it’s hard to comprehend how this centuries-old being is completely undone by some cheesy flirtatious sass, yet he’s always blushing and flushing and stammering, color flaring across his cheekbones &yadda.
i mean, the whole thing is basically a virginity metaphor—red is filled with this powerful dangerous magic (passion) that she doesn’t understand, that she suppresses every time it tries to come out of her, lest it consume her and blah blah restraint until this man (eventually) shows her how to use it but oh no consequences and cannot-be’s and yearning and blah.
and i could have overlooked a lot of this if the rest of the story was scary or dark or…lucid. it’s really confusing; there are too many variables to this structure, too many conflicting mythologies underlying the wildwood, and it gets muddled as fuck.
that’s another thing. there’s fantasy-realm-specific swearwords, where characters cuss by saying, “kings” or “shadows,” but they also say “fuck” and “shit,” and sometimes combine them, i.e.: “Kings on shitting horses.” it is so perplexing. what is this world?
having said all that, and complained so much, i am still likely to read the sequel, because the one-chapter teaser offered at the end of this book is focused on neve, whose situation at the end of this book is a much more compelling scenario than anything happening with red.
i didn’t much like this one because my tastes are incompatible with the genre. i’m giving it a low-three because it’s not the book’s fault that i get impatient with romantic tropes and how much time is spent resisting and dillydallying before the inevitable romance-stuff occurs.
but i understand that the slow-burning ‘will they or won’t they?’ tension is appealing to readers who crave the deliciously drawn out tease of a love story.
here’s your self-test. do you like this, yes or no?
“It’s far more complicated than that, Redarys.” Eammon’s eyes were stern. “Chasing the shadow-rot out of a person is dangerous. It takes more power than I have anymore—”
“But you aren’t doing it alone.” Red shook her head. “You don’t have to do everything alone, Eammon.”
His mouth was a tight line, hair shadowing his eyes. There was something waiting in the space between them, something vast and terrifying, but it narrowed down to this: the itch in her fingers to smooth along his jaw. The certainty that her palm would never feel right again unless it swept his hair off his forehead.
Red dropped her eyes; his were suddenly too much for her. “Let me help you, and we can help Bormain. We can at least speak with Valdrek about it.”
He searched her face, lips slightly parted, as if looking for something he was both eager and terrified to find. Then he turned sharply, headed for the other side of the square. “Have it your way, Lady Wolf.”
if yes, read this book!
if no, read a different book!
it’s the easiest decision of all time!