In Gods of the Wyrdwood by RJ Barker, the forest rules all. A dangerous land full of old gods, the forest is a place of fear for most people in Crua. But not for Cahan Du-Nahere. He has ventured into the woods many times and gone deeper than almost anyone. He doesn’t fear the woods, but he does have a healthy respect for the dangers within them. This is not the only way that Cahan is different from others. He is clanless, which makes him an outsider, lower than even the crownheads that the villagers raise. And he holds a secret that would set him, the village, and even the world on fire if anyone found it out.
[Note: While I am reviewing this novel independently and honestly, it should be noted that it has been provided to me by Orbit for the purpose of this review. Warning: My review of Gods of Wyrdwood contains some spoilers!]
A world of many gods, a world of one god
Crua is a land of many gods. The gods enter those with the strength to hold them. These godly companions are called cowls and the people they possess are known as Rais. The Rai are the most powerful people in Crua and the Cowl-Rai is their ultimate leader. Once the cowls were recognized as different gods and there were Cowl-Rai for each of the gods. But a new Cowl-Rai has risen who follows Tarl-an-Gig. This Cowl-Rai will tolerate no other Cowl-Rais or other gods.
The new Cowl-Rai is hunting down other Cowl-Rais, labeling them as false Cowl-Rais. Followers of any god other than Tarl-an-Gig are being arrested and executed as well. Crua is a land of fear now.
In this land of fear, Cahan Du-Nahere is just trying to survive. He is clanless, which means that the local villagers don’t trust him or respect him in any way. Known only as “Forester”, Cahan just wants to be left alone to run his farm on the outskirts of Harn. But fate wants something more from him.
Once Cahan was going to be the next Cowl-Rai of Zorir. But then the new Cowl-Rai of Tarl-an-Gig rose and began hunting Cowl-Rais. Cahan ran and never looked back. If anyone ever found out that he was hiding out in Harn then the Rai would be sent to kill him. Cahan just keeps his head down and figures that will be enough to keep him safe. But it’s not. Somehow the Rai have caught word of him and descend on his farm to execute him. Lucky for him (not so much for the other guy) someone had claimed the farm (being clanless, he had to give it up) shortly before the Rai came. Now Cahan was alive and off the radar of the Rai.
No good deed goes unpunished
After the execution of “Cahan”, Cahan took his farm back over. But the other farmer had been a poor farmer. Several of Cahan’s crownheads (sheep) are missing or dead and he needs to replace them if he’s going to survive. He doesn’t have enough money to replace the missing cattle but the leader of the village offers to buy the needed cattle if Cahan will accompany a trading party to Harn-Larger as security. Cahan accepts, seeing the trip as a way to leave Harn and get away from the Rais.
Of course, things don’t go the way Cahan plans. He ends up saving a forest creature from abuse and gets arrested as a result. Instead of being released the next day he gets dragged off into the forest to be killed as part of the binding ceremony for a new Rai. But his cowl isn’t about to go that easily. It takes over and saves his life but it also exposes him to the main Cowl-Rai again. Now Cahan must make a choice, deny his cowl again and most likely die, or accept what he is and lose himself in the cowl. Making the decision harder, it’s not just his life in the balance but all of Harn. Maybe even all of Crua if Cahan decides to embrace his cowl and takes on the role he was destined for.
Gods of the Wyrdwood is a world at once familiar and strange
The world of Crua is largely familiar but Barker tries to make his world distinctive in a few ways. Other than the obvious godly avatars that populate Crua, Barker bases his whole world on forests. The people live on the edge of the forest and are in constant fear of the forest. But at the same time, they organize their army by branches and trunks. Everything they have, even their armor, is made of wood. Many of their idioms are based on trees or the woods.
There are also plants that they use like float weed and bind weed, which do exactly what it sounds like they do. While their names are easy enough to figure out, there is nothing in our world that compares. Other times things are obviously the same as our things from our world but with different names, like the crownheads. Crownheads are animals that are raised in Crua. Their fur is sheared off and turned into woolen clothes. So they’re obviously some kind of sheep but Barker felt the need to make them different just to set his world apart I guess. I don’t when authors make completely new things up but it does irritate me a little when authors just rename things to seem different. It makes things difficult for no real reason.
Wordy but with a nice payoff in Gods of the Wyrdwood
Barker’s writing is a little wordy. I honestly think that a good third of Gods of Wyrdwood could be shaved off and it would actually improve the book. The essence of Cahan’s story is an interesting story. Cahan, Udinny, Venn, and Furin are all compelling characters and the supporting characters beyond these four are interesting as well. But sometimes their tale gets a little bogged down by Barker’s wordiness. But by the end of the book RJ Barker gets into a better rhythm and loses a lot of those extra words. Happily it’s in time for a very exciting and enjoyable climax.
So if you decide to read Gods of the Wyrdwood know that you’re in for a long haul. Not only is Gods of the Wyrdwood a huge novel, but it’s the first of a trilogy. Barker does give a satisfying ending to the battle for the people of Harn but there is a bigger conflict coming that he sets up at the end. So be ready for a lot of reading, but enjoyable reading.
My Rating: 7/10
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