Review: Gods of the Wyrdwood by RJ Barker

Gods of the Wyrdwood by RJ Barker

Timy reviews Gods of the Wyrdwood, the first book in RJ Barker’s epic fantasy trilogy, Forsaken. Out by Orbit on June 27, 2023.

About the Book
Series:Forsaken #1
Genre:Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Publisher:Orbit
Date of Publishing:June 27, 2023
Trigger Warnings:death, torture, massacre, violence
Page count:641
Possible The Sound of Madness Reading Challenge prompts:
  • Free Your Mind
  • Demons
  • Misfits
  • Middle Fingers
  • Vészhelyzet (Emergency)
  • Centuries
  • Drawn by the Sirens
Book Blurb
Gods of the Wyrdwood by RJ Barker

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.

Quote of the Book
Quote Background

“We see the trees above us, and these mushrooms around us and we think of them as massive.” Udinny nodded. “But that is barely half the forest. Most of it,” he traced a root as thick as his thigh across the ground, “is hidden beneath our feet. It is the roots that create the gaps between the trees. There is a constant hidden war for water and food going on beneath the ground. We consider trees peaceful, but they are not. They are warriors, fighting a very slow war.”

Review

Gods of the Wyrdwood was one of my most anticipated reads in 2023. I’ve read some of RJ Barker‘s previous books, and I loved them all. To say I had very, very high expectations is the understatement of the decade. That I was lucky enough to get my hands on a physical ARC was just the cherry on top. And yet. I absolutely hate saying this, but Gods of the Wyrdwood didn’t work for me. I was close to DNFing at one point, but I stuck with it, and while it didn’t grow on me, I’m glad I didn’t give up. Whether I’ll stick around for book two, though… well, hard to say. The epilogue kind of made me interested. I might give the audiobook a chance as I know the amazing Jude Owusu will narrate this series too.

But back to Gods of the Wyrdwood. What always amazes me about Barker’s novels is the worldbuilding. The ease with which he can paint the setting for his characters, the details that are rich and still not in the way of enjoying the story. He clearly went all out with this forest setting, and honestly, my favorite part of this book was those chapters where Cahan and Udinny were traveling through it in pursuit of the lost boy. It made me wish the whole book was set in that dreamy and dangerous world, exploring the creatures, the fauna, and the gods. I fully expected something mythical and whimsical and heartwrenching because that’s how Barker operates usually. But the forest wasn’t the main focus of the plot, not in the way I’d have liked, anyway.

Talking of the plot, for a good portion of the book, I had no idea what the plot was supposed to be. The first half or so had this episodic feel, where the main character, Cahan, went on adventures, making friends and enemies along the way, seemingly without much aim. Although Kirven’s alternative POV chapters shed some light on a bigger picture. Especially as both she and her child, Venn is deeply involved in the main conflict. It also takes a while to find your footing at the beginning with all the terminology thrown in, but you get used to it after a while. Although, a bit more explanation about some things would have been welcome… I spent the majority of the book wondering about why Cowl-Rai is different from the other Rai who also have a cowl – although I realize that I should have paid more attention to the blurb as a Cowl-Rai is a Rai chosen specifically by the god they serve. Or that’s what I’m figuring anyway. I also wanted to learn more about the Rai, rather than just getting snippets from conversations and memories. They just…are, I guess.

We also don’t get to know much about the trion, people who are neither male nor female, they exist to be a bridge between them. I liked the concept of families consisting of more people rather than only husband and wife. There are second and third wives and husbands as well as at least one trion, taking care of the children together. At least, that’s how it worked before the new regime arose in the name of a new god, who also decided to get rid of all of the other gods and their worshippers. Crua, as you might imagine is not a peaceful place in the present. Now the trion are used and abused and massacred for “the greater good”. We can only assume it’s not going to end well for those who took part in that.

As for the characters, we have a few prominent ones – Cahan the Forester who is the main character, and probably the most boring one of them. I mean, okay, he has a troubled past, he is an introvert who likes to keep to himself and he can be hardly blamed for it after everything he went through. And yet. I felt no connection to him, I never got invested in him or his story. Opposite to him, we have Kirven, the other POV character, who is certainly much more interesting, if unlikeable. She is selfish and a touch narcissistic, not being able to see behind her narrow views. Nor does she care about what her own child tries to tell her. Venn, the child in point, is a trion, the only one who survived what was done to them. I think he can become an interesting character given the time, but I wasn’t able to make up my mind about them yet. And we have Udinny, the monk. I probably liked her best. She definitely was a bright spot in the otherwise not-so-bright world of Gods of the Wyrdwood. Too bad the chemistry between her and Cahan didn’t really work out. Also, there was this annoying thing when it came to the dialogue between these two, where names are constantly dropped in almost every sentence. It’s a pet peeve of mine that drives me crazy.

All in all, apart from the worldbuilding, nothing much worked for me. I kind of get what Barker was aiming for with this one (it has themes of found family, a message of standing up for yourself and being true to yourself even if everyone else treats you like a lesser person, etc.), but it just fell flat on all accounts. It felt like there was much more telling than showing on the whole. The pacing was odd and sometimes dragging, the characters were a bit one-dimensional and the story just didn’t pull me in as much as I wanted to despite the decidedly cool bits (the Wyrdwood and its creatures!), the sections written in the second person didn’t add enough to the whole atmosphere or the plot for that matter. If I have to summarise in one sentence, I’d say Gods of the Wyrdwood is missing a heart.

Sometimes one of your favorite authors doesn’t write your next favorite book. And you know, that’s okay with me. I’m pretty sure Gods of the Wyrdwood will find its audience, but this time it’s not me.

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Our Judgement
Into a Cell with Them - 2.5 Crowns

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