Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 18 July 2021
As Second Daughter of the Kingdom of Valledya, Red's fate has been sealed since birth, she is for the Wolf of the Wilderwood! It is a sacrifice that has been carried out for centuries, necessary for the safety of the Kingdom. Strangely Red is almost relieved to go, even though she cannot bear to leave her sister Neve; yet deep down she knows the forest is the only place where her dangerous power will cause no harm. However, the Wolf turns out to be nothing like Red expected, and it seems there is much more that is not quite as has been told in the stories of old.
I was intrigued to read this book as soon as I saw comparisons being made to the Winternight Trilogy, which I absolutely loved. Unfortunately, at least for me, this book did not live up to that comparison; though it did remind me of Uprooted by Naomi Novik. That book too has its heroine sacrificed early on in the story so as to keep her village safe, and the Wilderwood here rather reminded me of the Wood in Uprooted too.
For me this book started off well. I was intrigued by the premise of the Second Daughter being for the Wolf, whilst the First is for the Throne, and by the history and lore behind this which was teased from the very beginning, yet at the same time kept shrouded in mystery. I thought there was some decent world building and I liked the bond set up very early on between Red and Neve. Once Red enters the Wilderwood the majority of the book focuses on her, though we get occasional chapters following Neve and events in Valledya, which are more politically based.
The book is probably more reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast rather than Red Riding Hood per say, not that I minded, though certainly the Wilderwood is very much a prominent character almost in its own right. It is a slow-paced book, which again I don't generally tend to mind, however, I did find here that the story became rather repetitive for long stretches in terms of what was going on in the Wilderwood and Shadowlands, with the same threats presenting themselves repeatedly.
I liked Red as a character, she was brave and loyal without having that irritating quality that I quite often find in YA fantasy heroines, though she could be somewhat too stubborn at times. I enjoyed Eammon's (the Wolf's) character too for the most part, my only criticism being that he could be rather too self-sacrificing. Whilst it was apparent fairly on that he was not the villain he was painted to be, I liked that he was actually a gentle and introverted character and not the arrogant hero with a bad-boy persona that seems to have become somewhat overdone in YA fantasy e.g. Rhysand and Casteel (I'm not saying I don't like those particular characters, just that I was glad of something different here). Whilst I liked their characters individually, and whilst the romance was sweet, I can't say I was completely sold on it though.
One of the aspects I enjoyed most here was the use of cult-like religions as power and influence, and also the distortions that arise in stories and legends over time and I liked how these ideas were explored and intertwined.
As I've already mentioned I liked the bond set up between Red and Neve at the start, and I liked the overall concept of Neve's character journey in the book, however I just thought it could have been executed better. Similarly, whilst I liked the idea of the political ambitions and plots related to this in Valledya, I thought the execution could have been more refined. I felt a lot of the secondary characters were a bit underdeveloped e.g whilst Arick's arc was interesting and at the end I had some sympathy for the character, for me he just wasn't developed enough for this to hold real impact. Side characters like Lyra, Fife and Raffe too just didn't make much of an impact or emotional connection. The villains were too one-dimensional for me, and the magic system could be a bit confusing at times. Overall I think a lot of these factors added up as the book went on, such that the latter parts even when the action was notched up a gear, failed to deliver and felt very much as just going through the motions.
Overall the book ended up feeling a bit flat, even though I was intrigued by some of the concepts and ideas. The book was generally quite atmospheric, especially the parts in the Wilderwood, with a dark fairytale feel to it with folklore entwined, and I liked the sibling dynamics, but it was too repetitive, lacking polish and feeling clunky in its execution with poor rendering of a lot of its side characters. There is a planned sequel, but I can't say I'm feeling all that enthused to read it when it comes out. I've given this 3 stars, but possibly that is being a bit generous.
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