Nathan’s Review of Gods of the Wyrdwood by RJ Barker
Publication Date: 27 June 2023
Series: Book #1 in the Forsaken Trilogy
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Pages: 641 pages
In a world locked in eternal winter and haunted by prophecy, a young boy trains for years to become the Chosen One, only for another to rise and claim his place in the start of an unmissable epic from a rising star in fantasy.
The northlands of Crua are locked in eternal winter, but prophecy tells of the chosen child – who will rule in the name of their God, and take warmth back from the South. Cahal du Nahere was raised to be this person: the Cowl-Rai, the saviour. Taken from his parents and prepared for his destiny.
But his time never came.
When he was fifteen he ceased to matter. Another Cowl-Rai had risen, another chosen one, raised in the name of a different God. The years of vicious physical and mental training he had endured, the sacrifice, all for nothing. He became nothing.
Twenty years later, and Cahal lives a life of secrecy on the edges of Crua’s giant forests – hiding what he is, running from what he can do. But when he is forced to reveal his true nature, he sets off a sequence of events that will reveal secrets that will shake the bedrock of his entire world, and expose lies that have persisted for generations.
Review for Gods of the Wyrdwood
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.
RJ Barker could write about actuarial science and I would be engaged – he is that talented. His prose is always lush and engaging; his worlds are always fasinating; his characters always come alive on the page. Luckily, Gods of the Wyrdwood is significantly more interesting than accounting, so much so that it was my favorite read of May – and it will be tough to knock it down as my read of the summer.
Describing Gods of the Wyrdwood is tough because, to be honest, it’s plot is not its strongest element. I thought I should state this upfront because Barker’s plot here does meander quite a bit; sometimes the pacing is a bit slow, there are parts in the middle where it drags a bit, and things don’t accelerate until the last little chunk of the book. The book almost feels episodic at times, like an epic and dark slice of life book. Things definitely happen in this book, but they don’t build on top of each other as you would expect from a traditionally plotted story. If you mostly read for plot, you might walk away disappointed.
The best way to think about Gods of the Wyrdwood is to take Shrek, make him a failed Chosen One, and place him in a dark, epic fantasy world. This is pretty much, Cahan, the main character of the novel. Cahan grew up thinking he was the Chosen One, a powerful magic user who could pull the world out of its perpetual winter. However, another Chosen One instead assumed the role as “Cowl-Rai”, and thus Cahan has spent most of his life running away from his powers and past identity, desiring to live alone at the edge of the forest. Throw in a spunky undead sidekick for some comic relief, a new emergent Chosen One coming of age story, and a mother conflicted about what is best for her son and what is best for the nation, and you’ve got the basic outline of Barker’s book.
This is a summary of Gods of the Wyrdwood, but when you are reading it sometimes doesn’t feel like this is the plot at all. Because the book is so episodic in nature, this overarching plot often recedes into the background. It constantly emerges to the surface, only to recede once again as Cahan and co. get involved in subplots and side quests that build out the world nicely, but don’t always make for a cohesive plot.
Therefore, there are many elements of the book – the deities themselves, the role of the genderqueer but magically powerful trion, etc. – that feel underexplored and underdeveloped in Wyrdwood. It is likely that Barker will further develop these aspects of the book in future volumes of the trilogy, but here it is almost like you are looking at all of these cool things out of the corner of your eye. They are obviously there and important to the story Barker is telling, but they never quite come into full focus as the plot unfolds.
I am particularly interested in learning more about the trion because they are such an interesting element to the story. I should note here that while the book (and by extension, Barker himself) is not transphobic, the world of Wyrdwood is not always a pleasant place for non-binary folx. At one level, the trion are revered as potential Cowl-Rai, and as possible saviors of the entire world. On the other hand, they are feared for having this power; they are forced to endure grueling trials and tribulations as their magic can only be awakened through very specific (and intense) circumstances. This is fairly standard practice in this world, and therefore none of the characters in the book itself admonish these practices (although many are sympathetic to Venn, the primary trion character in the book, and what they had to go through). It is obvious that Barker himself is critical of these practices in the world he built, and that he is directly critiquing the way that gender non-conforming people are used for political aims in our modern world (the trion are often traded around by powerful families for their magical potential). All of this is to say that some readers may want to avoid this book due to this content.
I can keep going on and on about the plot (or lack thereof), but at the end of the day I just didn’t care that much that there were things underdeveloped or that the plot didn’t always feel cohesive. I just wanted to spend more time with Barker’s prose, world, and characters. Despite the lack of plot development I flew through this big, 600+ page book because Barker’s writing wouldn’t let me go.
The true strengths of Gods of the Wyrdwood lie in just wanting to spend time in RJ Barker’s mind for a while because it is a mind full of creativity. If you’ve read and enjoyed his Tide Child Trilogy, starting with The Bone Ships, you’ll know what I mean. While Gods of the Wyrdwood lacks that trilogy’s propulsive momentum, it does have all of the wonderful worldbuilding elements that you would expect. Barker loves to build worlds that just feel “off”, that resemble our world enough to feel comfortable but also alien, different, and unsettling. Barker populates the continent of Crua with strange creatures, dark forests, nebulous deities, magical trees, and more. This gives the world of Wyrdwood an excitingly weird ecology, one that you cannot help but to want to explore more deeply.
In fact, my favorite section of the entire book is when our protagonists are forced to venture into the dark and dangerous Wyrdwood. There they are forced to confront all kinds of dangers – human and otherwise – and Barker’s true creative strengths are brought to their full potential.
The characters themselves are well-drawn and come alive on the page. As the main character, Cahan is particularly complicated and nuanced. The main narrative is often interruped through short interstitial chapters where we get (through a second-person POV) small glimpses of Cahan’s past. Cahan is a broken person, a person whose entire identity from birth was taken away from him, leaving him with nothing. By the time we meet Cahan he has spent nearly 20 years trying to rebuild himself, to find meaning in a world that doesn’t want nor need him. However, like Shrek himself, Cahan deep down is a hero, one who has much to offer and contribute to the world despite his desire to be a recluse. Cahan’s character arc throughout Wyrwood was a joy to see unfurl as he finally started to come to terms with his own life and find new meaning within it.
The other characters in the book, like Udinny and Venn, are also complicated and complex, despite their relatively low page counts. I would like to see more of their pasts and development in the future, but the one character I would like to see more of is the secondary POV character, Venn’s mother. She is so wonderfully complicated, with many contradictory elements to her that I would like to see more of. I can tell already that she will have a really big role in the narrative moving forward, but honestly for a lot of Wyrdwood she seemed to be spinning in circles a bit, waiting for Cahan’s story to reach a point where she can play a more significant role.
The more I logically reflect on Wyrdwood the more I can poke holes in all of the little things that didn’t quite work. But reading isn’t always about logically going through everything; it is about the experience you have. And I was utterly and completely absorbed by Barker’s world and writing. I can completely understand why others feel differently, but this was a five star reading experience for me and the next book in this series cannot come soon enough.
Concluding Thoughts: Anchored by a mysterious forest that you cannot help want to explore with the characters, Gods of the Wyrdwood is an exciting start to a brand new trilogy. RJ Barker brings the same level of magnificent worlds, characters, and prose from his Tide Child Trilogy and crafts a unique story about a man raised to be the Chosen One, but then was unceremoniously dumped and replaced. It is a story about finding a new place in the world. While not perfect, it completely hooked me and I was entirely absorbed into the Barker’s story. May not work for everyone, but I loved this one.
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