For the Wolf
(Wilderwood Book 1)
By Hannah Whitten
Orbit Books — June 2021
ISBN: 9780316592789 — Paperback — 437 pp.
To escape the will of the Kings, they fled into the far reaches of the Wilderwood. They pledged that were the forest to offer them shelter, they would give all they had for as long as their line continued, let it grow within their bones, and offer it succor. This they pledged through blood, willingly given, their sacrifice and bond.
The Wilderwood accepted their bargain, and they stayed within its border, to guard it and hold it fast against the things bound beneath. And every Second Daughter and every Wolf to come after would adhere to the bargain and the call and the Mark.
Upon the tree where they made their pledge, these words appeared, and I have saved the bark on which it is written:
The First Daughter is for the throne.
The Second Daughter is for the Wolf.
And the Wolves are for the Wilderwood.
Thus opens the first volume of Hannah Whitten’s Wilderwood series, a modern and atmospheric romantic fantasy that draws from deep folkloric roots of the “Animal as Bridegroom” archetype. As the first royal second daughter in centuries, Redarys (Red) has accepted her sacrifice to the monster within the mystical forest, taking in faith that the stories entwined with her fate are true. In contrast, her elder sister Neverah (Neve) skeptically pleads with Red to resist, and with their mother to stand up against the religious traditions.
Though wary of her uncertain future, Red feels equal fear at the prospects of staying home. She wrestles with her obligations to longtime friend Arick who harbors romantic feelings that she cannot bring herself to reciprocate. Even more, she worries about a mysterious power within her that once boiled to the surface in a dangerous moment that almost left Neve dead. Red remains uncertain of who she is, what she is. And, if the Wilderwild is indeed a part of that puzzle, she is ready to discover what that means. Perhaps she can even succeed where second daughters of the past have apparently failed: in convincing the Wolf to let the imprisoned Five Kings go free.
With Red’s entry into the Wilderwood to meet her destiny the novel steps into a rhythm of sets of chapters that focus on her third-person point-of-view, broken up by interludes from Neve’s. Though Red serves as novel’s protagonist, Whitten makes her sister’s importance clear. I imagine this will bear more fruit with a focus on the first daughter in the sequel For the Throne that is coming out this June.
Once in the cursed forest, Red comes upon a ruined castle and a man within. He is Eammon, the warden, the wolf, son of the original couple that made a pact with the mystical wood. She discovers that the myths she has learned don’t speak the entire truth. And she begins to explore powers within her that might not just keep her and Eammon safe, but also protect the Kingdom and the world beyond safe from the real monsters that are eager to spring forth from their containment. However, forces gather back in the Kingdom in the meantime to take exert control over Neve and block either her or Red from reaching their potentials.
For the Wolf is a novel that’s about two young women discovering not only what they are capable of, but what they want. It’s about learning to make difficult choices, but also embracing the freedom of having the agency to be able to make those choices for oneself. To really be in power, rather than needing another to provide it or permit it. If not already apparent over the course of the novel, Whitten transparently summarizes it within the novel’s climax:
It was time for choices. [Red] could see only one.
“Arick.” Her voice was hoarse.
“At his name, Arick’s eyes closed tighter. “I’m so sorry,” he said quietly. “We were all just trying to save you.”
“Come here.” Tears choked her. “Come here, please.”
A pause, then a lurch as he moved over the darkened ground. Red fought to keep herself steady against her childhood love’s broken stance and the sure knowledge of things vast and terrible stirring beneath her feet.
She reached up when he came close enough to touch, gently laid her fingers on his bloodied face. “I know you didn’t mean for this to happen.”
“No. But I didn’t care what was going to happen, not then.” There was shame in it, just barely. “I only wanted you safe.”
Red’s lips pressed white. All of them loved like burning, no thought for the ashes.
“I am safe.” Her hand left his face, fell to her dagger. She tried not to think on it, tried to let her body work without her mind’s direction. “I love Eammon, and he loves me. That’s safe.”
Another roar ripped through the grove. “Do you love he’s become?”
“We’ve both been monsters,” Red whispered. “I’ll love him, whatever he is.”
“You loved me once. You never said it, but you did.” Arick’s dry throat worked a swallow, eyes still pressed shut. “Didn’t you?”
“I did.” It was barely a whisper, this gentle thing that existed beyond truth and lie. Her fingers closed around the dagger hilt. “Not the way you wanted me to. But I did.”
His eyes opened. “Do it quick, then.”
The cover of For the Wolf, along with Red’s name, may lead readers to believe that the novel is a take on “Little Red Riding Hood”, but it really draws more from “The Beauty and the Beast”. Also, I would not characterize it is ‘dark’ fantasy as Jodi Picoult does in her cover blurb. It may not be bright or optimistic, but neither does it lie very close to horror. Brooding romantic fantasy would be a more apt description, and it’s an important consideration.
For the Wolf is well written, with fantastic prose and exceptionally lush visual imagery. The themes are great, and the world building is enticing. But, for my tastes Whitten emphasizes the style and plot to the neglect of fleshing out characters or the potential of that world building. The romance at the heart of the novel is not a sub-genre element I gravitate toward, because it’s a complex bundle of emotions and social patterns that get so often simplified to cliché. This seems particularly true with young love written all angsty and brooding. Eammon fits the mold perfectly, a rough and gruff exterior hiding a puppy dog core. The relationship between Red and Eammon reads very much like the bits I’ve read from YA fantasy formulas. Though Red is well developed, all other characters lack significant attention. I found this particularly unfortunate with secondary characters who give glimpses of interesting histories and personalities.
The magical system of the Wilderwood series, and the reality of its mythology become slowly revealed over the course of the novel, right on up to its close. Paradoxically, information is both repetitive and lacking in that Whitten provides some details multiple times while leaving other matters unanswered or unaddressed. Partially this comes from the character’s own ignorance and confusion on how the Wilderwood and its magical pacts work. But that also easily confounds the reader. I remain uncertain about the limits and possibilities of magic here, of the nature of the Five Kings, or the Shadowlands, or even the forest. I just know that somehow the union of Red and Eammon, and the supporting sisterhood of Red and Neve will somehow keep the world safe from evil.
Thus, there are a lot of individual elements to For the Wolf that make it an interesting novel, they just don’t come together in a way I found really satisfying, or emphasize the complexities and details I find most intriguing.
However, if you like a good romantic fantasy, made up of a tried-and-true formula done well, then this would certainly be a novel that you might love. Whitten’s writing is evocative with a stress on the magical atmosphere of the novel’s sylvan setting. The novel’s central themes are fantastic. I just yearned for something a bit more complex in character interaction and clearer in world-building from that foundation.
I still plan to read the sequel, For the Throne, which I’m scheduled to review in June for Fantasy Book Critic. I can imagine Whitten writing something that was more in my wheelhouse, even within this series, but regardless I know there is an audience for this, even if that’s not me.