GODS OF THE WYRDWOOD by RJ Barker (BOOK REVIEW)
You are running but you are not running fast enough.
You are running.
RJ Barker is back with a new trilogy, The Forsaken Trilogy, and Gods of the Wyrdwood is our first foray into his brand new world.
Some books are plot driven, some are character driven. Gods of the Wyrdwood is one of the few, if only books I’ve read, that I’d describe as being world driven. And what a world this is. Barker’s previous Tide Child trilogy imagined a world where ships had to be built from dragon bones as they couldn’t be built from wood. Here, we have a world with no metal, where instead wood is the main commodity. Weapons, armour, currency, is all derived from wood.
It’s a world of imbalance, of many different sorts, but primarily it’s believed the world is tilted so that the north endures an eternal winter whereas the south enjoys the warmth and therefore prospers. It’s prophecised that one will rise who will tilt the world the other way, through the power of their god. Cahan du Nahere was taken as a child to be trained to fulfil this prophecy. However, many gods rise and fall in Crua. Cahan’s path is violently disrupted when the followers of a new god mercilessly begin to crush any who oppose them. We join Cahan’s story as he attempts to hide from his past. But a power as strong as his cannot stay hidden for long. There is only so much running you can do.
To return to Barker’s worldbuilding then, Crua is dominated by hostile forest, and it is this which shapes and drives the fears and beliefs of the people. This is a richly imagined world, wonderfully unique. Water is derived from vines in the forest; a different type of vine enables you make things float. Creatures are tentacled with many eyes, or can fly propelled by sacks of air. Rootlings, small creatures of twigs and leaves who leave shrines dotted throughout the forest. It’s a thought experiment brought wholly to life, made utterly immersive by Barker’s signature prose. The further north you travel, the more dense and wild the wood becomes; people do not venture into the woods, for they do not return. Few indeed make it as far in as the Wyrdwood and see the cloudtrees – trees unfathomably large, mountainous in their scope.
Barker is not one to stop and explain this new world to you, instead leaving you to experience it entirely through his characters; which is why, I believe, his stories are so successfully immersive. I feel like I’ve lived this world alongside Cahan, like I’ve travelled through these woods with him and the monk Udinny (my favourite character!). There is a story in here, despite my focus on the imaginative world. Barker’s protagonist is a complex creature living in a constant stasis of fighting against his inner nature and running from the person he was created to be. As Barker discusses in his acknowledgements, this is very much a story exploring the nature of what happens when you can’t run anymore. When you accept who and what you are. In Udinny, we have someone who has spent her time running from her past, and has now accepted the path her god steers her down. She accepts the obstacles before her knowing it is her fate to do so. In Venn, we have someone firm in their knowledge of what they are not, despite the demands of their family and society. Between these two influences, Cahan finds a way back into society, and a way in which he can take his life forward without having to run.
Gods of the Wyrdwood is a lot darker than I was anticipating. There is violence, battle, murder. There are elements of Venn and Cahan’s that are bleak. Barker does not shy away from demonstrating the cruelty of this world. And yet there is love and support here, the importance of acceptance and inclusion. What I particularly loved was the absence of romantic love from this story; these characters are important to each other for reasons other than romance and I found that refreshing to read. Friendships and found family are just as motivating and driving, just as strong a bond.
Barker has taken me on a dark and fractious journey. Gods of the Wyrdwood is an arresting story with deep undercurrents weaving through a world you will not have experienced before. There’s is still so much more left to explore in this world, and I cannot wait to return.
Gods of the Wyrdwood is due for release 29th June 2023 from Orbit Books. You can pre-order your copy HERE
ARC provided by Nazia at Orbit in exchange for an honest review. All quotes taken from advance proof copy and may be subject to change. Thank you so much for the copy!