The Woods by Em McDermott — SPFBO 9 REVIEW

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I picked this up without knowing much about it. The cover had a picture of some woods, an axe, and a wolf so I had thought perhaps this was going to be a Norse story, but instead this was a little red riding hood re-telling. I actually really enjoy the concept of re-tellings and I’d like to get more of them under my belt. I love the idea of ancient stories, stories that have stuck to the wall as it were, being retold in modern times with modern perspectives and changes.

The opening scene was strong for me, with a lot of moral and family tensions right up front. Red is our main character and her grandmother, Gran, is a general in the army. This is not a little old doddering lady who needs help; she’s an axe-wielding wolf executioner, and I enjoyed that twist on things. I like it even more when Red wasn’t totally convinced it was the right decision to execute the wolf, and feels unsure if she just witnessed a murder or not. She feels like the wolf had sentience and was more than just a wolf and is mulling over the morality of it all as an introduction to her character. I really liked all of that.

In this world the village is protected by a giant wall that’s guarded by the a force known as the Huntsman. For generations the wolves have become less and less of a problem, but recently they’ve come back with a vengeance and they’re killing the Huntsman and it’s starting an all-out war again between the humans and the wolves all over again.

During one of these battles Gran gets hurt and it’s up to Red to go into the forest to find this flower that can help her get better. Red doesn’t want to go out into the woods, she tells the second in command in the Army that she’s not a soldier, is not trained, and doesn’t feel comfortable going out there. Of course, she loses this argument and gets sent out anyway, being told the wolves are licking their wounds and won’t be back for some time — just make it quick. Naturally, she gets captured. It sounded like a terrible idea from the start. There’s some background shenanigans going on and things are more complicated than they seem but still, there were so many flags, Red.

So from here she escapes, gets recaptured, escapes, gets recaptured and then brought to a wolf den with a bunch of basically reverse werewolves where they are wolves during the day and humans at night. Red actually had thought it was the other way around since in all the stories men turn to wolves at night and the moon. Honestly, to me the wolves at night makes more sense since human beings are not nocturnal (and would likely just want to sleep) while wolves can be since they have more success with hunting at night (although they’re actually crepuscular — insert Archer meme).

So, one of my nitpicks is that there are no alphas in a pack of wolves. This is a very persistent social myth that got started when bad research made its way into pop culture <preps for brief science tangent>…. a pack consists of related individuals. Usually a mated pair and their offspring as the offspring stick around until around 3 to 4 years old before moving off and forming a pack of their own. To quote the linked article “The same is true across gray wolf packs. Infighting for dominance is basically unheard of in a typical pack. When offspring are two to three years old, they leave the pack in search of mates, aiming to start their own pack. The alpha wolf notion of challenging dad for dominance of the existing pack just isn’t in the wolf playbook.”

So, each time I come across this theme of alpha wolf, or the alpha wolf being challenged is basically anywhere and I can’t help but think about the fact that it’s not a thing. I know this is not science fiction. I know this is a fantasy story about Red Riding Hood, and that these are werewolves, not wolves. But it is a peeve of mine. What actually made me DNF though, was the overarching theme of rape as a threat. It’s actually revealed as the central plot of the book once she makes it to the wolf pack alpha and finds out why they want her. So, although I persisted past a very lengthy rape-attempt which happened during her first capture, (which was a little jarring in and of itself), from my understanding of the plot, the rest of the book was going to be Red trying to make sure she didn’t end up the property of this or that wolf pack. It seems no matter where she ends up, a woman’s pain the sacrifice made by the village to keep them safe. So, from my understanding, sending a woman once a generation to go get raped repeatedly is the lore here and driving central plot around Red and her capture. This along with some pacing and dialogue issues made this ultimately a cut.