Review: The Wolf and The Woodsman by Ava Reid

This week I have a review of Ava Reid’s The Wolf and the Woodsman, a fantasy novel out from Harper Voyager (who was kind enough to provide me with a review copy). This post contains affiliate links to, an online bookstore that financially supports independent bookstores, and if you buy from my links, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Photograph of me holding Ava Reid's The Wolf and the Woodsman in front of a snow covered Eastern Hemlock tree.
This lovely cover was illustrated by Russell Cobb at Debut Art.

The Book Witch’s One Sentence Review

The Wolf and The Woodsman by Ava Reid is a lovely debut with an Eastern European flavor, a rich world, vibrant characters, and a multi-faceted plot that explores religion, identity, friendship, family loyalty and disloyalty, tolerance, and bigotry.


The plot of The Wolf and The Woodsman is fairly simple: A young woman is forced to leave home against her will, and finds herself making what amounts to a deal with the devil to save not just herself, but her people.

Describing Reid’s debut in this way does it no justice, however. This book has layers of complexity that reveal themselves slowly as the two main characters—Évike and Gáspár—march northward through the snow-covered country in search of a mystical creature that has the power to save what they each hold dear—or so they think.

Drawing heavily on Hungarian and Jewish folklore, The Wolf and The Woodsman has a distinct Eastern European flavor with a universal message. Although it can be read as an allegory for the spread of Christianity throughout Europe, to the detriment of pagans, Jews, and Muslims, it’s much more than that.

The novel tackles issues of religion, identity, friendship, family loyalty and disloyalty, tolerance, and bigotry. It forces Évike to determine how far she’ll go to save her village and the people in it, who often treated her poorly and were willing to essentially throw her away to save someone else. It also forces Gáspár to question his own faith, family, loyalty, the nature of love, and even his humanity, in fundamental ways.

The setting felt both incredibly grounded and delightfully unfamiliar. One of my favorite details was the fearful trees the villagers had to tie down so they didn’t run away when the Woodsman came.

But before all of that, the beginning.

A photograph of the first page of the first chapter of The Wolf and The Woodsman. The page features vines as decorations.
The typesetting in this book is as beautiful as the cover. I love the decorations and the chapter heading font!

When the Woodsman Met the Wolf

Évike lives in an isolated forest town inhabited by pagans. Unlike her fellow female villagers who wield various types of magic, Évike’s “only” skill is hunting. Because she is a woman who lacks magic, she is treated poorly by the other young women and girls in her village.

The village is part of a kingdom that has become increasingly intolerant to the pagans living on its outskirts who don’t follow the Patrifath (a loose equivalent to Christianity). In exchange for leaving the village to its own devices most of the time, every now and then the King sends his Woodsmen out to collect a magic-wielding “Wolf Girl.” 

No one in the village knows what happens to the Wolf Girls who are taken, but they are never seen again. The novel opens on a tense day: The Woodsmen are on their way to collect a seer, which is a particularly rare gift among the pagan magic users. The village elder forces Évike to take the place of Katarina, the true seer.

After the Woodsmen take Évike, clothed in Katarina’s wolf cloak, a series of unfortunate (for the Woodsman) events leads to the revelation that the head Woodsman, Gáspár,  is actually the king’s son, and that he desperately wants to prevent his zealously religious younger half-brother from ascending to the throne. This event, which would be bad for Gáspár because of his late mother’s status as an outsider, would also spell doom for the pagans and other minority groups living in the kingdom.

So, Gáspár and Évike forge an uneasy alliance and agree to search for a mythical creature that would give Gáspár the power to gain favor with his father and ascend the throne. They start off hating each other, but come to have grudging respect for each other as their journey goes on.

Although the novel is told from Évike’s perspective, we spend a lot of time with both characters. There’s lots of romantic and sexual tension between Évike and Gáspár, but the novel never turns him into Évike’s savior like many YA fantasy novels tend to do. She saves his life as much as he saves her (his inability to use a bow and arrow with any accuracy is also something Évike, an expert marksman, uses to her advantage). 

I’ll stop my summary there to avoid any spoilers, but I will say this: At one point, there is a pet bear. He’s pretty cool.

A photograph of the map included inside The Wolf and The Woodsman.
I’m a sucker for fantasy books with maps!

Final Thoughts

With the long history of fantasy novels based on wildly inaccurate assumptions about medieval England, it’s always refreshing to see fantasy settings based on other areas and cultures. Books like this have become more plentiful in recent years, but it’s going to take quite awhile for me to get sick of them (I read a lot of medieval-England-fantasy in high school). There also seems to be a recent surge in speculative fiction inspired in part by Jewish history and folklore, written by Jewish authors, and I can only hope we see this trend continue as well. 

The Wolf and The Woodsman does read like a debut novel at times—certain sections meander a bit, or we get overly lost in Évike’s thoughts, and the overall structure could have been streamlined a bit more. But these are all quibbles, and didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the story. 

At the end of the day, Reid’s prose is as sharp as one of Évike’s arrows, and she knows how to hit a bullseye.

If you’d like to pick up a copy of The Wolf and The Woodsman, please consider buying from your local indie bookstore, or online from, which supports indies! While you’re at it, you can preorder Ava Reid’s new book, Juniper and Thorn, out May 22!

Have you read The Wolf and The Woodsman? Want to add it to your TBR? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments or on Instagram or Twitter @bookwitchblog!

Review: Worlds of Light and Darkness Anthology

This week’s review covers Worlds of Light and Darkness: The Best of DreamForge and Space & Time, edited by Angela Yuriko Smith and Scot Noel. As usual, this post contains affiliate links to, an online bookstore that financially supports independent bookstores.

Worlds of Light and Darkness comes out on May 25, but you can preorder it now

An image of an eReader displaying the Worlds of Light and Darkness anthology cover.

The Book Witch’s One Sentence Review

Worlds of Light and Darkness is a wide-ranging collection of insightful speculative fiction from two respected magazines that will introduce readers to a number of lesser-known, but worth knowing, writers across many sub-genres.


I learned of this collection because I used to read submissions for DreamForge, a speculative fiction magazine with a bent toward the hopeful based in Pittsburgh. An advance review copy was available through NetGalley, so I jumped at the chance to be an early reader.

I was also pleased to see that one of the stories I helped select, “A Sip of Pombé” by Gustavo Bondoni, made it into this collection. I might be biased, but it was easily one of my favorite stories in the collection.

While I was familiar with DreamForge, this was my first introduction to fiction from Space & Time. The collection is arranged with ten stories from DreamForge (worlds of light) at the beginning, and ten stories from Space & Time (worlds of darkness) at the end. 

Although the selections from DreamForge were noticeably more upbeat overall than those from Space & Time, it would be false to say the Space & Time stories were universally dark or depressing. On the contrary, stories across the collection showed a range of themes, tackled the full depth of human emotions, dealt with difficult topics, and ended on mostly positive notes. 

“Mostly” being the key word, as there were a few stories that ended on darker notes, including “Humani” by John Palisano, “Joy of Life” by Alessandro Manzetti, and the collection’s final story, “A Glass Darkly” by Ian Rogers.

Overall, I think the editors did a good job of balancing the uplifting with grim possibilities, and I appreciate that stories ranged from Mars exploration (“A Sip of Pombé”) to high-tech heist (“Artifact” by Jonathan Maberry) to modern speculative western (“The Spiral Ranch” by Sarena Ulibarri).

Stand Out Stories

My favorite two stories in the collection were “The Feline, the Witch, and the Universe” by Jennifer Shelby and the aforementioned “A Sip of Pombé” by Gustavo Bondoni.

Another shot of the eReader with the cover of Worlds of Light and Darkness anthology.

“The Feline, the Witch, and the Universe” follows a witch as she rides her bike through space in search of her missing familiar—a cat who is mad at her because they didn’t take a vacation. Although this story appeared in Space & Time, it was actually quite lighthearted. I enjoyed the world building and the implied tension between magic and science. Plus, the image of a witch riding her magical bike through the cosmos just tickled me.

“A Sip of Pombé” takes place in a near-ish future where various countries have begun setting up settlements on Mars. Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, Uganda develops its own space program and launches its own Mars mission in secret. The story addresses nationalism and, more importantly, various factions’ ability to rise above nationalism in the name of scientific progress and humanity at large. 

Another stand out story for me was Austin Gragg’s “Collecting Violet:” a cautionary tale about ecological destruction disguised as a touching account of the tenderness of Death. It was beautifully written, and featured a talking corvid, something I can’t resist. 

I also really enjoyed the concept of a vertical, indoor ranch in Sarena Ulibarri’s “The Spiral Ranch,” and the whimsical magical bookshop in the opening story, “Answered Prayers” by Scott Edelman.

An Unfortunate Turn of Phrase

Of course, the wide range of sub-genres and stories included in this collection meant a few didn’t connect with me—and that’s okay. I can’t say I disliked any of the stories, although the way Alessandro Manzetti describes a woman in “Joy of Life” did have me cringing. 

The line in question was “The thing that is moving is a human female, alive. The reptile senses her ovaries rotating in the estrogen broth.” 

A screen shot of an eReader with text that reads "No, it's not yet time to change. The heartbeat hunter is not mistaken. The thing that is moving is a human female, alive. The reptile senses her ovaries rotating inside the estrogen broth. Warm blood, tides."

I know this is written from the perspective of a sentient lizard that may or may not fully understand human anatomy, if your ovary is rotated, it’s a medical emergency. The author could have opted for any number of verbs, like “hummed” or “vibrated”, but he went with the anatomically inaccurate and impossible “rotating.” 

Despite that unfortunate line, Worlds of Light and Darkness is a strong collection that highlights the diversity of genres and ideas percolating in the galaxy of speculative fiction, and is worth picking up.

Who are some of your favorite speculative short story authors? Let me know in the comments or on Instagram or Twitter @bookwitchblog!

Review: Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dhavana Headley

This week’s review covers Maria Dhavana Headley’s new translation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. My reviews do contain affiliate links to, an online bookstore that financially supports local independent bookstores.

I hesitated to review this book, as it’s been covered by folks much more knowledgeable about Beowulf than I in all sorts of prestigious publications (the New Yorker, NPR, Vox, just to name a few), but April is National Poetry Month, and I decided to forge ahead.

A photo of Beowulf: A New Translation with an old books-scented candle and some red flowers.
In addition to being a great translation, the cover is gorgeous. I’m obsessed.

Reading Beowulf for the First Time

I first read Beowulf when I was in ninth grade, but not because it was an assigned reading. As a bookish, nerdy fourteen year old, I had taken it upon myself to read all the classics in science fiction and fantasy.

I can’t remember how or why I decided to start with Beowulf—perhaps because it was the oldest, perhaps because my father had mentioned that it had a dragon—but I picked up a copy from my local library and commenced reading.

It was 2001, and although I didn’t know anything about translations, I happened to select Seamus Heaney’s then-still-new version because it featured the Old English alongside the translation. The cover struck me even then: The silver chainmail against a stark black background.

I do remember that I finished reading Beowulf for the first time on the bus ride to school. It was early in the year still, summer hot and weeks away from September 11. It was my first year in public school after spending most of elementary and all of middle school in two separate Christian schools, and I didn’t yet have any friends, except of course, books.

I was confused, when I finished reading, because I had thought reading Beowulf was supposed to be awful. Boring. A slog. Impenetrable. But I loved it. Not just the story of triumph over Grendel and his mother, not just the fighting and the blood and guts and glory, but the language, the cadence of the sentences, the rhythm.

I carried the book around until I had to return it to the library, pouring over the Old English, comparing it to the new, reading the footnotes, reliving the action. When my English teachers failed to assign it in any of my classes throughout high school, I was actually disappointed.

Reading Beowulf: A New Translation

Twenty years out from my first reading of Beowulf, Maria Dhavana Headley graced the world with her version of the epic poem. Being a woman in the world of literature and acutely aware of the gender bias that persists even still, I was excited to have a woman translating one of my favorite classics. 

An image of the first page of Beowulf: A New Translation showing the first line of the poem, "Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings!"
Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of epic poems!

And my word, she does not disappoint. This book is worth buying for her introduction alone, where she challenges the long-standing assumption that Grendel’s mother must be a literal monster because of her sword fighting prowess, ponders the various dilemmas that crop up for any translator, and ultimately reveals the sheer weight of her love and enthusiasm for this story.

Headley’s translation brings the language of Beowulf into the twenty-first century while maintaining the old world feel of the story. I’ve seen some commenters dismiss her translation because it makes ample use of slang such as “bro,” but this, I think, misses the point.

This translation of Beowulf will endure for the same reason ‘90s film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, like Clueless and Ten Things I Hate About You, have endured: They touch on the universal by using the specifics of the moment, and use the specifics of the moment to add nuance and more layers of meaning to the original stories. 

But to me, the real value of Headley’s translation is the way she uses it to challenge assumptions and reframe elements of the narrative. If Grendel was half-man, half-monster, why assume his mother was the monster and not his absent father? This is a question Headley explored at length in her novel about Grendel’s mother, The Mere Wife, but seeing the battle between Beowulf and Grendel’s human mother was a balm I didn’t know my soul needed.

Headley gives Grendel’s mother the space to be her complex self: a grieving mother, a capable swordswoman, and a villain in her own right. 

A photo of the back of Beowulf: A New Translation.
I don’t usually bother showcasing the back of books, but the excellent cover design on this one extends to the back and I couldn’t resist. It’s just so pretty!

Even setting this fresh interpretation of the only significant female character in the epic poem aside, Headley’s use of language, rhythm, and tone is nothing short of transcendent. Reading her verse is a joy; reading it aloud even more so. It’s fun, and it feels good on the tongue and lips.

Fans of Beowulf will enjoy this new translation, and even better, it will provide a new access point for readers who may never have discovered it or been interested in otherwise. 

The Book Witch’s One Sentence Review

Maria Dhavana Headley’s Beowulf: A New Translation is fresh, fun, and challenges the reader to reassess long standing assumptions about the story and characters while remaining true to the epic spirit of the narrative.

Who’s your favorite queer speculative author? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter @bookwitchblog, or Instagram @bookwitchblog!

Comic Review: Inkblot by Emma Kubert and Rusty Gladd

This week’s review covers the first collected volume of the comic Inkblot, by Emma Kubert and Rusty Gladd, published by Image Comics. This post contains affiliate links to, an online bookstore that financially supports local independent bookstores.

Inkblot Volume 1 collects the first six issues of this ongoing series about a librarian sorceress and the magical cat she accidentally conjures. 

The six issues of Inkblot that are collected into Inkblot vol. 1.

The Book Witch’s One Sentence Review

A funny, whimsical fantasy that takes readers on a journey through space and time with a curious, magical black cat at the helm.

Inkblot by Emma Kubert and Rusty Gladd

It all begins as the librarian sorceress, known only as The Seeker or Bookworm, is recording the exploits of her extremely powerful sorcerer siblings. She falls asleep while she’s working and knocks over a number of bottles of ink and other things. After the dust settles, as it were, a little black cat with big round green eyes appears.

A panel from Inkblot showing The Seeker conjuring the Cat.

The Seeker quickly learns that this cat can open inter-dimensional portals when she chases the cat into the Mountain Lands and they almost get eaten by giants. While the kitty in question has no official name or gender, I’m going to refer to them as Inkblot since it’s also the name of the comic.

Although the cat is magical, their only utterance is “mow,” issued with varying inflections and degrees of emphasis. As the story progresses, The Seeker chases Inkblot in several unsuccessful attempts to catch and study them.

The first few issues remain fairly lighthearted as the cat causes mischief by climbing dragons and riding the Loch Ness monster, and we meet a few of The Seeker’s siblings and the Realms they rule.

Toward the end, things take a turn for the serious as we learn more about The Seeker’s past and her youngest brother, Inos. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I am very much looking forward to seeing how the story progresses in future volumes.

The Art of Inkblot

Emma Kubert and Rusty Gladd’s process for creating Inkblot is not the typical writer/artist dynamic. Rather, Kubert draws everything out, Gladd inks it, Kubert colors it, and then Gladd adds dialogue and captions. I like how their creative process echoes the back and forth between The Seeker and Inkblot the cat.

The Seeker attempts to catch Inkblot.

The art is whimsical, but also features bold lines. The color palette is somewhat restrained but not boring—it works well for the mystical fantasy setting. Kubert and Gladd excel at creating exaggerated facial expressions that work well for the comical tone without crossing over into the land of hyperbole or satire.

Inkblot’s only discernible facial features are their big green eyes, but they also use their ears to communicate how they’re feeling to great effect. 

The black cat was what drew me to this comic in the first place: I adopted a black cat in November 2019. And just like Inkblot, if she’s not in the exact right lighting, the only facial feature you can make out is her big yellow eyes.

Not Your Typical Black Cat

The black-cat-as-witch’s-familiar trope has been explored and then explored some more, and I love the concept of the black-cat-as-witch’s-foil that turns many of the original trope’s conventions on their head.

The inside front cover of Inkblot features a silhouette of the cat behind the credits. The back cover of each issue features an inkblot with eyes.

Rather than working together for a common goal, Inkblot and The Seeker are always at odds. Inkblot is a quintessential cat: They go where they want, when they want, and they do what they want regardless of what’s going on around them. Inkblot’s antics had me laughing out loud in delight more than once.

The Seeker tries to catch Inkblot, but Inkblot always eludes her grasp. This game of cat-and-sorceress also provides an excellent overview of the world of the comic, as Inkblot travels to different realms and time periods in history.

Inkblot Volume 1 serves as an excellent introduction to the series. It has humor, heart, solid world-building, interesting characters, and beautiful, eye-catching art. The story takes a few issues/chapters to take shape, but with a cat leading the way, who can complain? The meandering pace works well for the characters and story, and invites the reader to sit and stay for a while.

For more great comics featuring felines, check out my “Comics and Graphic Novels Featuring Cats” booklist over at! Have you read Inkblot? What did you think? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter @bookwitchblog!

Review: The Sandman Audio Adaptation

This week’s review tackles the audio adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman! This post contains affiliate links to, an online bookstore that financially supports local independent bookstores.

The Absolute Sandman volume 1 on a starry background, with an eReader playing the Sandman audio book on top of it.

The Book Witch’s One Sentence Review

Audible’s audio adaption of The Sandman by Neil Gaiman is a brilliantly acted immersive take on the classic comic series that will please longtime fans and help bring this amazing story to a whole new audience.

The Sandman Audio Adaptation Review

How do you create an audio drama from a graphic novel?

Dirk Maggs makes it look pitifully easy in his full-cast audio adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman that more than does justice to the original comic.

As a long-time fan of Gaiman’s groundbreaking series, I was a tad apprehensive about how good an audiobook adaptation would be. Not because I’m a format purist or don’t like audio, but because I’ve been burned too many times by bad, cash-grabby comic book adaptations. 

Sandman is important to me, and I was afraid the audiobook would be bad.

I needn’t have worried. While the audiobook version of Sandman is, of course, different in a number of ways from the comic, it stays true to the story while adding something new at the same time. The brilliant voice acting adds tone and depth to each character, and the added narration (performed by Neil Gaiman himself), fills in most of the gaps caused by the lack of visual material. 

A page from the Doll's House on a starry background with paper stars.

It’s the same story, same impact, just in a different format. I, for one, am thrilled that one of my all-time favorite books is now available to more folks.

Those who’ve read and enjoyed the comic will appreciate the nuance this new telling adds to the story, while those who’ve never read the comic are in for an auditory and narrative treat.

This Adaptation Has Beautiful Voice Acting and Excellent Production

James McAvoy’s Morpheus is brooding and dark against Kat Denning’s chipper Death, while Justin Vivian Bond’s Desire is perfectly petulant and petty. I didn’t love Andy Serkis as Matthew the raven at first, but he grew on me and I’m curious to see how he’ll handle certain pivotal scenes in later books.

In short, the voice cast is spot on, and everyone nails their characters. It was insanely easy to close my eyes and feel like I was in the Dreaming.

This first volume of the audio drama (parts 2 and 3 have already been greenlit by Audible) covers the first three trade collections of the comic: Preludes & Nocturnes, The Doll’s House, and Dream Country. It maintains the original “chapter” breaks of the individual issues, and these are announced verbally, echoing the print reading experience.

An interior shot of the last page of Sandman issue 8, on a starry background with paper origami stars.

I was particularly curious how they would handle A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a storyline at the end of Dream Country in which Morpheus brings the fae to England to watch a play he commissioned from a young William Shakespeare. It’s one of the most visually complex issues of the comic, and relies heavily on paneling and framing to tell a story-within-the-story. It also has a rather large cast of characters: Shakespeare, his son, his players, Titania, Oberon, Puck, and a whole menagerie of fae who serve as the peanut gallery throughout the issue.

For the audio, they use sound layering and background/foreground speaking to give the same impression and experience, and it worked really well. Again, Gaiman’s narration also helps here, but I thought Maggs did an excellent job recreating the complex visual effects in this format. 

Itty Bitty Nitpicks

The only places I thought the audio drama failed to live up to the comic were a few scenes with The Corinthian. I loved Riz Ahmed’s portrayal of this eye-eating nightmare, but the narration on a few of his scenes left me with less than a full picture of what was happening with his victims. I also don’t think the horror of seeing mouths for eyes the first time Corninthian takes off his glasses translates quite as well to audio, but again, this is a minor complaint.

Unfortunately, The Sandman audio drama is an Audible exclusive, but you can purchase an MP3 CD through Bookshop. Generally speaking, I don’t like purchasing books through Amazon, and the same goes for audio. 

Amazon isn’t going away anytime soon, though, so I’ve had to make a sort of peace with it, especially in cases like this where there’s no other option. Still, I encourage audiobook readers to check out, an alternative that directly supports independent bookstores!

And if you’d like to purchase any of The Sandman graphic novels, you can always do so through your favorite indie bookstore or! I’ve compiled a handy list of the series and its main offshoots over at my Bookshop storefront.

Review: Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline

This week’s book review covers Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline, the follow up to his 2011 bestseller Ready Player One. This post contains affiliate links to, an online bookstore that financially supports local independent bookstores.

The Book Witch’s One-Sentence Review

Ready Player Two is a fast-paced and fun—though imperfect—nostalgia-fueled romp that explores deeper themes of toxic masculinity and the repercussions of virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

A Brief Recap of Ready Player One

In case you haven’t read the book or seen the movie (or it’s just been awhile), there are a couple things you need to know. James Halliday, who grew up in the ‘80s, created the virtual reality world the OASIS. After his death, his OASIS avatar Anorak—now a program that runs autonomously—revealed that whoever could solve the puzzle he designed would inherit Halliday’s real world wealth and an owning stake in his company. Because the stakes are so high, pretty much everyone is trying to solve the puzzle, including Wade Watts, aka Parzival, our main character, and his merry gang of friends, Art3mis, Aech, Daito, and Shoto.

People seem to either hate or love Ready Player One, Ernest Cline’s nerdy love letter to the ‘80s and early video games. 

The book’s detractors say it’s just nostalgia porn with no real purpose, while those who connect with it see a bit more nuance in the storytelling and a deeper message than just “the ‘80s were cool.”

I loved Ready Player One—it has some flaws, but it’s a hoot to read—and particularly liked how Ernest Cline addresses toxic masculinity and gatekeeping in nerd culture. 

At the beginning of the book, Wade/Parzival is an awkward nerd boy with a chip on his shoulder who spends all his time playing video games and trying to solve Halliday’s quest. By the book’s end, Wade has had to confront his own toxic tendencies, and the imperfect legacy of his idol, James Halliday. He’s also had to learn how to be a better friend.

This character growth elevates the book above nostalgia-fueled-romp to something with more meat and consequence, at least in my opinion. Wade wins Halliday’s contest with more than a little help from his friends, but splits his winnings with them evenly. He also, of course, wins Art3mis/Samantha over and they begin a relationship in the real world at the end of the book.

Press Start to Read This Review of Ready Player Two

At the beginning of Ready Player Two, we find Wade once again bitter and broken. Samantha has broken up with him, and he’s grown distant from Aech and Shoto. He is, to put it mildly, a hot mess who’s once again become addicted to the OASIS—only now, with the OASIS Neural Interface (ONI) headset, he can plug his brain directly into the machine, making the addiction even stronger.

A number of reviewers, particularly on Goodreads, decried this as an “erasure” of Wade’s character development from the first book. I disagree. By the end of the first book, Wade had only just learned how to be a better person. Suddenly, he’s been given the keys to the kingdom, more money than he knows what to do with, and a level of fame that proves to be uncomfortable for him.

He does what many celebrities in this position have done before him: He backslides. He falls into old habits. His wealth and fame allow him to get away with behaviors he couldn’t before. He knows it’s wrong, and he knows these behaviors are why Samantha broke up with him. But he can’t seem to help himself, so we find him wallowing in shame, pity, and loneliness.

In gaining wealth, fame, and power, Wade has lost everything that was actually important to him, and Ready Player Two is the story of him fighting to get those things back. 

Far from “erasing” his character development, Cline reminds us  that growth isn’t a linear process. Change is hard. It’s work. And it’s easy to fall back on old habits when things get difficult—or too easy.  

Is RP2 a Rehash of RP1?

Another common complaint I’ve seen about this sequel is that it’s just a repeat of the first book, but worse. I’ll get to that momentarily.

The book’s main plot kicks off when Anorak, James Halliday’s avatar, returns suddenly and informs Wade, Samantha, Aech, and Shoto that he’s made it impossible for anyone using an ONI headset to log off of the OASIS, which will cause irreparable brain damage after twelve hours of constant use. Anorak will only release his hostages if the gang is able to solve Halliday’s second puzzle: a quest for the seven shards of the Siren’s Soul.

(The siren refers to Kira Morrow, the woman James Halliday was in love with, but who instead loved and married Halliday’s partner, Ogden Morrow.)

Samantha has refused to use the ONI headsets, but Wade, Aech, and Shoto have embraced the technology. Being unable to log off and facing probable death makes them particularly motivated to find the seven shards. Despite the strain Wade’s behavior has put on their relationships, they all set out together to complete this new quest.

And this is where, yes, Ready Player Two echoes Ready Player One. But Two also takes the questions raised about the consequences of virtual reality in One and takes them to their next logical step: the question of AI. Anorak is a rogue AI, and while it seems like just another “robots bad” plot, it actually becomes much, much more complex.

That complexity, and the nuance with which Cline explores the problem, process, and repercussions of digitizing human consciousness, means I disagree with the assessment that Two is just a rehash of One. One asks “What if,” and Two follows it up with, “Okay, and then what if?”

The Glitch in the Code

None of this is to say Ready Player Two is a perfect book. The way each of the seven quests lined up perfectly with one of the party members’ expertise felt a little too perfect. And while I enjoyed the shard quest that took place on an OASIS world dedicated to Prince, it should have been at least twenty-five percent shorter.

Cline also introduces a transgender character in Ready Player Two, but the way in which he reveals L0hengrin is trans felt forced and awkward. Instead of simply letting us infer Lo was trans, and by extension just letting her be trans, he has Wade use his admin powers to look up her real-world identity and history. Wade doesn’t do this with any other character, and it felt a little bit too much like Cline wanted to make extra sure we knew that Lo is trans, instead of trusting the reader to figure it out.

Despite these issues, Ready Player Two delivers in the most important way: It’s a fun, nostalgia fueled romp that continues the first book’s exploration of toxic masculinity, jealousy, friendship, and what it means to be human.

If you’ve read Ready Player Two, what did you think? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @bookwitchblog