Book review: For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten

(image courtesy Hachette Australia)

People often live and die by the power of their beliefs.

So enduring are they in many instances that even when there is evidence that they may not be as true as has been preached and believed, people hold to their faith doggedly, preferring entrenched belief to palpable evidence on the ground.

Or they may dispute the purity of long-held, widely-shared beliefs and pursue their own variant, a blind commitment to upsetting the status quo that can be as damaging as those who unswerving hold to the one true faith.

Hannah Whitten explores the warping power of belief in all its forms in For the Wolf, a brilliant fantasy debut that goes into the heart of the human condition while making the point that there is none as blind as those that will not see.

But it’s not just enmeshed religiosity that fills the dark but hope-filled pages of this book; the author insightfully examines what happens to people when good intentions, such as protecting someone you love, becomes curdled and twisted and people do unspeakable things in the pursuit of something good and wholesome.

Does the end really justify the means or is it simply an excuse for those who want and wish for something deeply to do whatever it takes to realise their goal?

While you’re mulling that one, Whitten also runs, and runs with real passion and humanity, with the idea that those who are willing to accept that their beliefs have been in error and to embrace the reality before them, are some of the bravest people around.

“In the following silence, three blossoms dropped from the same bough of a flowering bush, one of many dotting the forest floor. The small white blooms were brown and withered before they hit the ground.

It gave Red the unsettling impression of a price being paid.

Swallowing hard, she stood, hitching her bag over her shoulder. ‘I suppose I’ll have to find you, then.’

She set off into the woods.” (P. 33)

After all, there is comfort and security in what you know and leaving those ideas behind, even when all the evidence says that is necessary and right, is a massive, frightening leap into the unknown.

One person who knows that all too well is Redarys, the Second Daughter of the royal family of Valleydan, a frozen northern kingdom which is known for the power of its religious institutions and not much more.

Reliant on importing their food and goods from the world outside, all of whom pledge fealty to the power of its temples, shrines and devotees of the Order, Valleyda is built on belief without question, its entire polity resting on the need to keep the Wolf in the Wilderwood happy by sacrificing the Second Daughter to its rapacious, bloodthirsty needs.

In the myth and legend of the kingdom, the Wilderwood is a place of wicked enchantment, a magical stand of impenetrable forest that sits over a supernatural prison of sorts in which the Five Kings and the fearsomely dark and terrible of the Shadowlands have been imprisoned for the ages.

If they escape, the medieval-esque world as everyone knows it is over and so the Wilderwood must be supplicated come what may with Redarys or Red as she is known to her slightly older twin Neve, who shall ascend the throne, and to their close friends Arick and Raffé, the one to whom this momentous task falls.

Hannah Whitten (image courtesy Hachette Australia)

Legend has it that Red will die to fulfill the role to which she has been born, and while she has no wish to die, she is also relieved in one way to go to the Wilderwood, hoping it will give her release from the magic that swirls destructively, or she feels, in her veins after she and Neve recklessly rode to the magical forest four years early.

But here is where things get even more interesting in For the Wolf; Red enters the Wilderwood as the rest of the royal party watches sadly one (for them this is an eternal goodbye) and finds out the Wolf is not an unthinking supernatural beast but a man, a magical man yes, but still a man, and that the magic she has feared may yet become the most vital and amazing thing about her.

Whitten gloriously dissects in Red’s experience what it is like to find out that much of you believe is an unwitting lie – the events that gave rise to these beliefs happened so many of hundreds of years before, so in a sense you can understand how people have ended up with an erroneous belief system – and how disorienting and yet liberating it is to pivot and find your life utterly transformed.

While For the Wolf is undoubtedly bleak fantasy that doesn’t stint on depicting the darker aspects of the supernatural world and the human condition, it is also hopeful, convinced that love and a tenacious commitment to the truth has the kind of muscularity and power you need to take on the vile seductive messages of false, self-serving beliefs such as that underpinning the gruesome nightmarish of the Shadowlands.

“It was still strange to her that the Wilderwood was something with an end. It was a geographic anomaly. None could catalog where it stopped, so they assumed it simply didn’t. Explorers had tried to map it–riding up the eastern border where Valleyda met the frozen expanse of the Alperan Wastes, and sailing along the western side, where it met the sea. None returned.

Now Red knew why. The Kings disappeared and the Wilderwood closed, and those who’d made their way behind it, through the sea or up the Wastes, were trapped there. She thought of Bormain and Valdrek, the people dressed in green and gray. The descendants of those lost adventurers, cut off from the world for generations.” (P. 246)

Balancing the darkness and the light is done with engrossing aplomb by Whitten who spins a supremely inspired tale of good versus evil set against the grey and limbo of the real world.

For even where there are certainties, and belief does have its roots in real and tangible events, people have an ability to twist things into shapes that inhabit both the good and the evil realms, straddling it with the weird, strange, self-rationalising ability unique to people.

For the Wolf, for all its grounding in the realities of the world, many of which stand in marked contrast to the hopelessly dogma which controls people’s lives, knows that it is all too easy for things to get cruelled and compromised and that even the purity of love for one sister to another or the romantic love of a man for a woman, can grow dark and cold in the face of selfish desire.

Inhabiting both black and white certainty, and the grey in-betweens in a way that feels real and all too human even in a fantastical context, For the Wolf is an impressively written, deeply empathetic novel which enthralls with its magical otherworldliness, its expansively imaginative premise and a story so vibrantly impassioned and emotionally intense that it draws you in absolutely and completely, much as the Wilderwood does with Red, and does not let go, leaving you feeling a part of a tale that utterly subsumes you in the very best of ways.

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