I was so excited to receive this ARC from Netgalley and Random House Children’s because it has so many things that I love: Russian mythology, an animal narrator, and a spooky forest. One of my favorite ARCS I’ve ever gotten from Netgalley was Bear and the Nightingale, a YA historical fantasy based in Russia. A Wolf for a Spell is even more exciting to me to a certain extent (despite my lack of experience with middle grade books), because of Baba Yaga!!
From the Publisher:
Since she was a pup, Zima has been taught to fear humans—especially witches—but when her family is threatened, she has no choice but to seek help from the witch Baba Yaga.
Baba Yaga never does magic for free, but it just so happens that she needs a wolf’s keen nose for a secret plan she’s brewing… Before Zima knows what’s happening, the witch has cast a switching spell and run off into the woods, while Zima is left behind in Baba Yaga’s hut—and Baba Yaga’s body!
Meanwhile, a young village girl named Nadya is also seeking the witch’s help, and when she meets Zima (in Baba Yaga’s form), they discover that they face a common enemy. With danger closing in, Zima must unite the wolves, the witches and the villagers against an evil that threatens them all.
What I Loved:
- The Split Narrative. Normally, I am not a fan of split narrative. It distracts the reader, gets confusing, and often, writers use it as a tool to have the reader be omniscient. It also usually results in weird time gaps that make no sense, so the reader has no idea how far along in the story they are. In Wolf for a Spell, Sutton does a really good job of showing instead of telling. Nadya, Zima, and Baba Yaga all have a role in a larger plot, and each of them is equally important. The satisfying conclusion could not have happened if not for each of these strong female characters doing exactly what they did when they did it.
- Strong Female Characters. Without being redundant, I think that Zima, Baba Yaga, and Nadya each deserve a call out for being really well-written, flawed but relatable. Zima is a wolf who has the wellbeing of her pack at the forefront, who is willing to risk losing herself to Baba Yaga to save her brother, and who can recognize that humans are not the ultimate enemy. Baba Yaga wants to save the forest at all costs, but learns that she hasn’t been listening to the forest’s needs until she meets other people. And Nadya is a brave little girl who saves her friend and the forest, and does so despite being neglected. I also love her goal of learning the forest in and out.
- The Worldbuild. Sutton sets the stage for the reader to enter medieval Russia, a cold place where tsars are made through bloodshed and the forests seem all consuming. The snowstorms are fierce, the people are gritty, and things can kill you quite easily. However, Sutton also keeps it light in that these things are shown, without the characters being adversely affected by it (no one dies in the snow, or gets eaten by wolves in-page). This strikes a good balance for a middle grade book, so the reader can get the ambiance without being scarred for life.
What Didn’t Work as Well:
- The Pacing. This is a minor problem, since I think overall Wolf for a Spell was paced well, but I did think that the beginning to middle of the book flew by, while the last half was slower. For me, it was fine, but for a younger reader, it may make more sense to space the action sequences further apart to keep interest engaged. I would have also made each section a little longer so the reader gets to spend time with each character more.
That is really it as far as negatives go. I am unused to reviewing middle grade books, but from the perspective of a younger reader, this hits all the right notes.
I would buy this for my niece in a heartbeat if she was old enough. Wolf for a Spell is a great way to introduce younger readers to Russian mythology and a kid-friendly way to bring in Baba Yaga, who has a bit of an infamous legacy in Russian canon. I loved the animal narrator, since it teaches children empathy for other creatures, and also has some good lessons about the environment and nature. Five waves out of five for the young’uns! Out September 22, so get it here or here (on sale at Bookshop!) Bonus, it comes with some gorgeous illustrations.
I am the forest. It flows through me. And now, I will flow through it.