FOR THE WOLF by Hannah Whitten (BUDDY READ BOOK REVIEW)
The first daughter is for the Throne.
The second daughter is for the Wolf.
For the Wolf is the debut novel of author Hannah Whitten, and it’s being released this June from Orbit Books.
Nils and I (Beth) were both fortunate to receive advanced copies (thanks Orbit!), so we decided to buddy read it and review it together. After plenty of Whatsapps and an attempt at organising our thoughts via Google docs, we bring to you our review:
For fans of Uprooted and The Bear and the Nightingale comes a dark fantasy novel about a young woman who must be sacrificed to the legendary Wolf of the Wood to save her kingdom. But not all legends are true, and the Wolf isn’t the only danger lurking in the Wilderwood.
As the only Second Daughter born in centuries, Red has one purpose-to be sacrificed to the Wolf in the Wood in the hope he’ll return the world’s captured gods.
Red is almost relieved to go. Plagued by a dangerous power she can’t control, at least she knows that in the Wilderwood, she can’t hurt those she loves. Again.
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.
Firstly, what drew you to this book, and what were your expectations?
Beth: It was definitely the Red Riding Hood retelling that drew me to this story. I absolutely loved Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, and I’m fascinated by the ever evolving nature of fairy tales, so I was looking forward to discovering Whitten’s spin on the tale. It seemed that, rather than have a central female figure who is accosted by a wolf, instead we would have a society which actively sacrificed her to the wolf. I was looking forward to discovering why.
Nils: Oh I haven’t read The Bloody Chamber, Beth, is it many fairytale retellings or just one of Red Riding Hood?
Beth: Oh it’s a collection of various retellings of different fairytales! They’re quite dark and creepy.
Nils: Added to my tbr!
So as soon as I heard For the Wolf would be a dark fantasy, a retelling of Red Riding Hood featuring a malevolent forest, well I immediately wanted to read it. Firstly, forests are one of my favourite settings in fantasy, and the creepier the better. Secondly, I can’t say I’ve read that many retellings of Red Riding Hood, or even watched that many adaptations of it. It seems to be a story a lot of creators stay away from, perhaps because The Brothers Grimm’s original tale had many sexual undertones. So anyway, I was really curious to see what Whitten would do with the story, what kind of fresh take could she spin on it. Also, Orbit books got in touch for me to share a book trailer on my Instagram account, and damn did that trailer look so good. I’d say we were both pretty hyped right from the beginning, weren’t we Beth?
Beth: Ha, we really were! I really couldn’t wait to get lost in this forest!
Having started the book, what were your initial impressions?
Nils: I immediately fell in love with Whitten’s prose. She had a fantastic way of setting up a dark tone and creating a foreboding, eerie atmosphere in the space of just a few lines. Here’s an example:
“She looked to the north, squinting against cold wind. Somewhere beyond the mist and hazy lights of the capital, was the Wilderwood. The Wolf. Their long wait was almost ended.”
I loved the little touches of detail Whitten included, which always worked to help visually build the scene in my mind.
Beth: Yes! Straight away, Whitten’s prose jumped out at me. There’s a magnetism to it, a repetition of key images and colours to reinforce the tone and emotion conveyed.
Nils: Yeah, and that worked really effectively to draw us in. The mystery of the Wilderwood, of Red’s looming banishment where she would be sacrificed to the Wolf, also compelled me to read on. We are given a sense that the forest has a strong hold on Red, that it claimed her on her first forbidden visit to the forest, where some sort of accident occurred. We begin to learn that the Wilderwood pulled her towards it in a way that went beyond the age-old ritual of sacrificing the second daughter. I was quite hooked to find out why.
Beth: I was suspicious early about the truth behind what was actually going to happen to her – I didn’t for a second think she was going to die, so I was eager for the narrative to get to the bit where she goes to the woods so we can find the truth.
Nils: I didn’t think she would die either.
However, initially I found Red a touch on the moody angsty side for my personal liking, I mean I guess she had good reason to be, a looming sacrificial death wasn’t something she’d be looking forward to after all, but I did find myself wanting her character voice to be a touch less sullen. I think that it was also because I was drawn to her sister Neve more, so in the opening chapters I looked forward to her getting to her interludes.
Beth: I struggled with the angst too, and this was a theme for me throughout. It’s a very emotionally charged novel, and whereas normally that’s fine with me, I found it just a bit much for my own tastes this time round. I think, because I had been expecting more of a fairy-tale retelling, I was expecting that fairy-tale tone too, of a story being woven, so I found Red’s sullen and bitter voice clashing with that expectation. That’s not Red’s fault, there’s very little wonder as to why she feels this way!
Nils: That’s a good point, the fairy-tale tone was missing for me too, and I would say before reading this it’s important to know, even though it has been marketed as a retelling of Red Riding Hood, overall it isn’t.
Beth: Yes, it’s almost a bit misleading, isn’t it. Something I did absolutely love was the little snippets of story-building we received before the narrative actually began. In my advanced copy, there’s a letter on the inside cover, an invitation from the High Priestess to the sacrifice. Then there’s an extract from later in the story of Red in the forest, bleeding. Then, just before chapter one, there’s an epigraph detailing the legend of the First and Second daughters. All this was wonderful layering of world building that not only intrigued me, but served to give me a good footing of understanding before the story started.
Tell us about the plot; did you enjoy the storyline?
Beth: I keep coming back to the fairy-tale retelling thing, and whereas I was expecting it to be a twist on Red Riding Hood, it actually put me in mind a lot of Beauty and the Beast.
Nils: I absolutely agree here, I mean apart from the characters Red and the Wolf, who held undertones of Red Riding Hood characters by their titles, and by the red cloak which Red wears, I couldn’t really see any other connections. Yet as you get deeper into the plot, there are more similarities to Beauty and the Beast.
Beth: There are core threads that are similar; a female protagonist trying to reach somewhere in a forest/being held in a forest, a male figure within that space who she must either overcome or come to love. But the plot is very much a different kind of engine entirely, with a religion built up from a misunderstanding of a long-past historical event. The magical forest acts as prison for Kings of the past, and the Wolf’s duty is to maintain this guard with the help of Red.
Although the plot drives this story – it’s very much a case of events happening to the characters that force their decisions. However, the focus is on the characters, so it’s very much a slow-burn kind of story. Or an insidious creeping, maybe, like a vine stealing up the brickwork. I liked the connection blossoming between Red and Eammon, but it was often frustrating in its slowness. These are characters carrying so much pain, that the caution between the two, the focus on consent, on coming to terms with each other, was necessary. I’m just not necessarily a patient reader.
Nils: For me the plot immediately felt a little too similar to Uprooted by Naomi Novak, which I read a few years ago, and which I believe is a Beauty and the Beast retelling. So I’d say if you are a big fan of that book, this is definitely one you’ll want to pick up and devour.
However, as Beth mentions, the plot was a slow burn, which usually would be fine for me because Whitten does add lovely worldbuilding details, especially about the forest, and Eammon and Red’s growing magical abilities, which worked to hold my interest. The frustrating part though was that the plot seemed to be slow and often stalled solely because of miscommunication, or holding back information. Often I’d find things could have been resolved quicker if characters had been straight forward with each other, and I saw no reason for them not to be. Again this is just a personal preference though, and I’m sure many readers won’t mind this aspect at all.
Beth: Ha! Yes! I get that it’s in our human nature to miscommunicate and bottle things up, but as a reader you’re then shouting at the page “JUST TELL HER OMG”
Any stand-out characters for you?
Nils: Neve, I really found her character fascinating, and I was always eager to discover where her story would lead next. Throughout the book Neve has one purpose in mind, one goal to drive her to any means necessary, the only vision she held was to bring her sister back from the Wilderwood. I really enjoyed the way Whitten slowly spiralled Neve into darker paths. As her desperation to save her sister heightened and the closer she got to actually achieving this, the more morally grey she became. I really loved this simple line which I thought metaphorically summed up Neve’s character:
”Strange, that she’d find faith in blasphemy.”
Beth, I know you enjoyed seeing Neve interact with the priestesses? The way they manipulated her?
Beth: I was so damn distrustful of those priestesses! I loved Neve’s story arc, like you say Nils, I loved the growing darkness in her. Her motivations are so clear to begin with, but I thought Whitten was quite clever in how gradual Neve evolved; I’m not sure at what point it happened, but eventually it’s clear that for Neve, it isn’t all about Red anymore.
Nils: Great point, I got a sense that Neve’s motivations had changed too!
Beth: Red herself was interesting. The dedication, which in hindsight I should have paid more attention to, reads:
“To those who hold anger too deep to extricate, to those who feel too knife-edged to hold somethings soft, to those who are tired of holding up worlds.”
Nils: Love that dedication so much!
Beth: This is absolutely Red, those are all emotions that have been poured into this character, and it was interesting to see how those manifested in her drives and her decisions.
Unfortunately, I think there’s so much focus emotionally on Red and Eammon, that the rest of the cast feel like pale figures in their shadows.
Nils: Yes, I’d have liked to have got a bit more characterisation from the priestesses, and Eammon’s staff in the tower.
Beth: Yes, Fife ad Lyra! They had made bindings too, but I was a little confused about how all that worked…
What do you feel were the strengths of this book?
Nils: Personally I most enjoyed the Wilderwood setting and the magic system. I felt like the forest was a character all on its own, with its myriad of secrets, its seemingly sinister trees and vines creeping ever closer, and the way the forest kept appearing inside the Wolf’s tower, just out of nowhere.
“She felt roots arching towards her under her feet, felt bone-coloured boughs stretching over her head. Instinct told her to fight the magic down, but this was the Wilderwood, where it belonged. Where it’d been born.”
Whitten’s prose (as I’ve mentioned another great strength) brings the whole forest to life in such a vivid way. Then the magic system, which was heavily linked to the forest, held a lot of intrigue for me too. Whitten presents us with some truly compelling concepts – the power of the forest, the imprisonments of the Five Kings, the powers Red and Eammon’s blood held, I’d have been interested to know even more about all of this, as I feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface of it in this book.
Beth: I really loved the story of the Five Kings and the slow reveal of the various truths surrounding it. Sorry, that’s not strictly speaking a strength of the story, it’s just something I particularly enjoyed!
I agree with Nils, Whitten’s prose is beautiful in its darkness. It does edge on repetitive at time, but on the other hand you could argue that the repetition builds on the cloying claustrophobic nature of this forest.
Nils: Whitten’s build up of imagery is so well done, I agree certain motifs become repetitive the more you read on the more noticeable it is, especially around the colour red, but then it does firmly cement in your mind what kind of world you’re in.
Beth: I think a strength is definitely the way in which the book handles depression and grief:
“But grief was like gravel in her slipper, and she felt it more when she was standing still.”
Much like depression itself, Whitten represents it in a myriad of forms; various characters react to and carry their burdens in different ways.
Was there anything you wish had been done differently? Was there anything that didn’t work?
Nils: This may sound contradictory because I’ve just praised how much I enjoyed the dark forest, but I actually found the characters too dark – not in a violent or malevolent kind of way, but we see very little joy radiating from any of them.
Beth: That’s very true Nils, I think that’s why perhaps I struggled with just how emotionally charged this story is, because the emotions are, for the most part, so dark.
Nils: That’s a great way of expressing the tone of the book Beth – ‘emotionally charged’, and a lot of readers will absolutely love that, yet lately my tastes have veered more towards books which balance darkness with humour, or subtle humour.
Beth: I absolutely get that, given the pandemic and everything. Everyone reacts differently to times of high stress, and like you I’ve bounced better off things that are lighter and have a note of humour to them.
Nils: It’s not that I never like characters who brood, I mean I adore Kaladin from The Stormlight Archives and through the majority of that series, he’s extremely moody and depressed and understandably so. Even then though, Sanderson’s books still hold humour and banter, something to cut through the dark. I think perhaps in For the Wolf it was a little too much having all the characters presented with so much bitterness and melancholy, this just didn’t work for me.
I’d have liked to have had some more flashbacks scenes of happier times between Red and Neve. I wanted to have a few chapters which showed Red and Eammon happier together, laughing, sharing a joke, falling in love. They were both always so intense, so serious. In my opinion there needed to be a few light-hearted moments to add some balance to the darkness of the rest of the worldbuilding, or at least mellow out the angsty tone. I’m sure others will completely disagree with me here, and I think that’s great because reading is subjective and what didn’t work for me, may be exactly what you’re looking for.
Beth: I think you hit the nail on the head there Nils. I think our problem is, For the Wolf sets out to do something very different to what we thought it would.
There’s quite a lot of blood-letting in the story – in order to heal the trees and heal each other, Eammon and Red must cut themselves. This has played on my mind more since I’ve finished the book, and how this might be perceived in terms of depression and self-harm. The characters talk about taking on the pain for each other, about literally bleeding to save the other. There should be less stigma on mental health, more awareness of self-harm and more open conversations about it.
Nils: Very true.
Finally, did it meet your expectations?
Nils: I think mine and Beth’s expectations were a bit too high here? Which unfortunately happens sometimes with hyped releases. Expectations can often lead to disappointment, and even though I know I should avoid it, it’s also very easy to fall for hype. However, I did enjoy many aspects of this book, but ultimately I feel it wasn’t exactly the retelling I assumed it would be.
Beth: Absolutely Nils, and I have found this in the past where I haven’t gelled well with a book when I’ve gone into it thinking I know what to expect. There are going to be many readers out there who fall head over heels for Eammon and Red’s brooding natures, but I wasn’t quite as smitten unfortunately!