Book Review : Gods of the Wyrdwood

I received this book for free from Orbit Books in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review : Gods of the WyrdwoodGods of the Wyrdwood (Forsaken, #1) by R.J. Barker
on Jun 27, 2023
Genres: Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Epic
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Source: Orbit Books

Ours is a land of many gods, and we are a people with the ability to pick the worst of them.

Cahan du Nahare is known as the forester—a man who can navigate the dangerous Deepforest like no one else. But once he was more. Once he belonged to the god of fire.

Udinny serves the goddess of the lost, a goddess of small things; when she ventures into the Deepforest to find a lost child, Cahan will be her guide. But in a land where territory is won and lost for uncaring gods, where temples of warrior monks pit one prophet against another—Cahan will need to choose the forest or the fire—and his choice will have consequences for his entire world.

Gods of the Wyrdwood is an interesting and rather dark fantasy novel. I was immediately intrigued by the concept of the novel, which involved competing gods and a malevolent forest, and I was not disappointed. The novel has solid world-building, complex characters, and an amazing twist ending. 


Admittedly, when I first dug into Gods of the Wyrdwood, it took me a little while to get used to the writing style and sentence structure of the novel. This was my first time reading a novel by RJ Barker, so I don’t know if this is his trademark writing style. Anyways, his prose is very direct, to the point, and unadorned. It also contains a lot of sentence fragments. This didn’t bother me, nor did the switches to second person during some chapters interspersed between the events of the present story, but I could see some readers struggling with the style or finding it not to their taste.


However, though I initially found it a bit off-putting, I really came to appreciate the writing style, especially during Gods of the Wyrdwood’s many fight scenes. I do not generally enjoy reading fight scenes or depictions of battles—it’s a personal flaw of mine. Oftentimes, I find the scenes tedious and hard to follow, and even harder to picture, but Barker’s short and simple descriptions of these action scenes kept me focused, invested, and aware of what was going on in the novel. 


On the other hand, I did struggle a bit more with the terms in the novel. While I hate information dumping and tons of exposition, and usually prefer when authors assume I can figure things out through context, it would have been helpful to me to have a bit more explanations for things in the novel like religious systems, certain plot points, and fantasy terms. I would have also appreciated a glossary of terms to reference, but we can’t always have everything. Despite struggling to fully grasp all of these concepts, I will say that keeping things on the vague side only perpetuated the pervasive sense of mystery swirling around protagonist Cahan’s past, the nature of the forest, and more. So this narrative choice to go lighter on explanations really did add to the general atmosphere, which I also liked. 


“‘You have made me dislike this place even more,’ she looked around. He shrugged but it has not escaped his notice that, since they had encountered the shuyun, the monk had become less bright. As if until then she had ot truly understood that they were alien to the forest, and the forest was alien to them. ‘It is like the forest is some vast creature, and we are travelers through its guts,’ she said.”*


It’s not just the mysterious atmosphere of Gods of the Wyrdwood I liked, but the feeling that anything could happen in this world at any moment. The novel shines when it describes the eponymous forest, which has many of the hallmarks of the dangerous fantasy forest, but still manages to feel intimidating. The inhabitants of the forest, both plant and animal, are incredibly unique and creative. I can only wonder how the author came up with all of them. The religious system of conflicting  gods and their followers competing for supremacy and domination felt really original to me in the way it was portrayed. The magical system was also interesting, though perhaps feeling a little less original, as it involves a lot around the common themes of malicious fantasy forests and  “with great power, comes great responsibility,” the latter of which being pretty ubiquitous. 


Despite the usage of these popular fantasy tropes, author Barker does a fantastic job portraying this struggle in Cahan and another side character, Venn. I actually found myself frustrated with Cahan many times because even though I knew he swore off his own powers due to the destruction it would cause, I couldn’t help but constantly wish he would utilize it. The character truly did come across as sanctimonious at times and it was hard knowing that he could end more of his struggles if he simply just used his abilities. My irritation at Cahan’s dedication to his pesky morals signifies how skilled the author is at demonstrating the tenuous and insidious nature of power and its corruption, which clearly affected me, the reader as well. 


“‘What haunts you, Cahan Du-Nahere?’
‘Power, Udinny, and what can be done with it.’ He took a breath. ‘But it is not something I would speak of now, I have spent so long not being that which I was raised to be that it is painful to even think of it.’

‘What were you raised to be, Cahan Du-Nahere?’ said Udinny softly.’
‘The end, Udinny. I was raised to be the end.'”


If the moral dilemma wasn’t interesting enough, there are also other interesting side characters in the novel. Each narrator offers a startlingly different view on the world at large and the juxtaposition of their classes is very apparent and well executed. Cahan is a disgraced outcast with no family, known as a “clanless,” Venn is a reluctant Rai (magic bearer), with extraordinary potential, and High Leoric Kirven is a privileged ruler more out of depth than even she knows. My favorite character, called Udinny, was not a narrator, but a quirky side character. Udinny’s the monk of an unpopular god and a great comedic reprieve from the darker elements of the novel. I snorted at many of her remarks and found her incredibly entertaining. It also doesn’t hurt that Gods of the Wyrdwood has many despicable villains, which readers will also love to hate. 


Less enjoyable to me than Udinny’s antics or the undermining of villains was the description of animal abuse in the novel. Yes, these are fantasy creatures, but I was still unhappy to read about creatures being maimed, abused, and killed for the sake of labor or amusement in this world. I read fantasy novels largely in part for the escapism factor, so getting repeatedly smacked in the face with descriptions of animal cruelty in a fantasy setting, while realistic, was definitely not ideal for me, a dedicated vegetarian and ardent animal lover. Admittedly, these segments tie into the world-building, though these portions are mostly not pivotal to the overall story and are easily skippable. However, if this is something readers find triggering, they should proceed with caution. 


The only reason I did not give Gods of the Wyrdwood a higher rating was that I personally do not necessarily enjoy darker fantasy novels and the pacing was a struggle for me. I did not always want to pick the book back up after putting it down because of the darker overall tone, with descriptions of Cahan’s abusive childhood and the present day treatment of both Cahan and Venn being upsetting to my overly empathetic self and harder to read.  Again, this is more of an issue with my taste itself and the fact that I didn’t really know this novel would consistently deal with heavy themes, like child and animal abuse, character death, religious intolerance, and more. 


Additionally, the pacing of the novel also did not help me want to pick the book back up. The novel swings back and forth between high action moments and moments where very little or next to nothing of importance is occurring. So sometimes, I was incredibly invested in what was happening in the novel and others, I was almost bored. The last ten percent of the book is almost entirely action and exciting, but the rest is inconsistent. 


That being said, the payoff in this novel is incredibly high and I was completely floored by the ending of Gods of the Wyrdwood, which had an amazing twist that got me even more invested in the story. Honestly, I don’t know how I’m supposed to wait for the next entry in the trilogy, which I’ll definitely be picking up, but with the darker tone in mind. After finishing this novel, I am also even more interested in picking up RJ Barker’s others works, which is something I’ve been wanting to do, but haven’t gotten around to yet. If you like fantasy novels on the darker side, with solid world-building, interesting magic systems, creepy sentient forests, and a variety of characters, Gods of the Wyrdwood is definitely the read for you. 


*All quotes are taken from an Advanced Reader’s Copy and are subject to change at the time of publication.


Book Review: Gods of the Wyrdwood - Blogging with Dragons

Posted June 1, 2023 in ARCS, Book Reviews, Fantasy

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4 responses to “Book Review : Gods of the Wyrdwood

    • Thank you! Yeah, I definitely can see the writing style would not be for everyone. I hope you enjoy it if you decide to try it!

  1. This sounds like an interesting book and I love the cover, but I decided to hold off on obtaining an ARC because I felt so-so about Barker’s writing style in THE BONE SHIPS. That book was certainly unique and imaginative, but it felt slow and ultimately I never finished the trilogy. It sounds like GODS OF THE WYRDWOOD might have a similar pacing to THE BONE SHIPS.

    • This was my first time reading his work, so I wasn’t sure if this was his trademark style or not–sounds like it is. I did struggle with the pacing myself in this one too, it almost felt like all of nothing. Thank you, that gives me a good idea what to expect when I pick up The Bone Ships!

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