‘A Wolf for a Spell’ by Karah Sutton is an engaging fairytale for middle grade readers

“A Wolf for a Spell” by Karah Sutton is a clever story of magic, determination, unlikely alliances, and folktale figures. We first meet Zima, a wolf with a mind of her own. Instead of hating humans and killing an unprotected girl from the nearby village, she shows mercy. But the presence of magic, and the witch Baba Yaga, the wielder of the magic, have thrown the wolves into a state of discomfort. They are determined to protect themselves from the humans who seem out to destroy the forest and its inhabitants.

Nadya, the girl whose life Zima spared, lives in an orphanage at the edge of the forest. She loves the forest, and in spite of its many dangers (poison streams and plants, deep holes, dangerous animals), she loves to explore. Nadya also plans to use the forest for escape when she needs to leave the orphanage rather than being given to someone as a servant. She is hopeful that her friend, an older orphan named Katerina, who is engaged to Tsar Aleksander, might help her. Katerina is beautiful and kind and skilled at healing.

When Zima’s brother is mortally injured by a human arrow, she knows that the only way she can save his life is to beg Baba Yaga, the witch, to heal him. But any request made of Baba Yaga comes with a price. And Baba Yaga’s price is that she and Zima switch bodies for a while.

And that’s the beginning of a tale which takes us deep into the forest, into the castle of the tsar, and into the past where we learn about the history of the tsar and his family. While the story begins slowly, it takes time to learn about the various characters and how they all fit together. At times, it can be a bit confusing with Zima, who has taken Baba Yaga’s body, and Baba Yaga, who is now a wolf, and Nadya the orphan and the friends that they meet on their respective journeys.

At heart, they are all on the same noble journey — to save the forest from those who would destroy it either because of fear or a desire for power. Sutton weaves in elements from Russian folktales like Baba Yaga, the firebird, and a Russian tsar. And while the magic is an important part of the story, it’s the determination and goodness of Zima and Nadya that win the day. It’s an enlightening tale of character change as well, as we see how all three female main characters (including Baba Yaga) grow and mature. The conclusion is touching, and its message of unity and how we are stronger together than apart, is one that is important to discuss in these polarizing times.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, for review purposes.

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