Fantasy author RJ Barker, already known for his Wounded Kingdom and Bone Ships trilogies returns with the epic start to a new trilogy (or as he calls it in his Afterword: a science-fiction appropriate 7 of 9). Gods of the Wyrdwood is first and foremost a ferocious work of world building, although in this volume Barker only reveals a portion of the world that is mapped before the opening page. In the tradition of all good first novels Barker spends most of its time establishing that world, its rules and its characters but still has room for individual character beats and plenty of action.
After a short cold open involving a six-year-old child with some form of potential power, Gods of the Wyrdwood returns years later to displaced and outcast farmer Cahan who watches as the family who have taken over his family farm are killed. The killers, elite soldiers called Rai, are looking for Cahan as he represents one of the older gods of this world. Those soldiers are rooting out followers of all of the old gods to ensure the ascension of a single deity. Cahan, who has turned his back on his power, understands that he needs to run. But he is soon pulled into the dramas of the local village and then much bigger political and religious drama as he saves the daughter of the one of the local rulers from her mother’s own soldiers. All of this takes Cahan deep into the northern forests, a dangerously magical place where it seems the old gods are biding their time.
Gods of the Wyrdwood is a meandering novel. There is no real plot to speak of apart from Cahan’s peripatetic wanderings which take him in and out of the forest and back and forth to his farm, despite the fact that it is clear that it is a dangerous place for him to reside. Along the way Cahan makes a number of memorable allies and enemies particular the rogue priest Udinny. And the narrative does build up to an effective and engaging Seven Samurai-style small village training montage followed by a battle of the plucky villagers against a superior force.
What Gods of the Wyrdwood does extremely well is give a feel for the world that Barker is building. The religions, the sects, the genders (there is a third gender called trion) and array of creatures is dizzying. Barker throws readers into this world (a glossary may have helped the early going but is ultimately unnecessary) and uses Cahan’s wanderings and encounters to reveal it. But given the map at the front, the book only covers less than a fifth of this world. There is plenty more to explore in the next two volumes.
RJ Barker knows how to spin a winning tale. Despite its occasional lack of focus, Gods of the Wyrdwood is never less than engaging, and much of the time, page-turningly tense. And while he probably did not need to pull a (decidedly obvious) twist and cliffhanger to bring readers back, it both cannot hurt and gives an inkling of the nature of the battles to come.