Friday, August 18, 2023

Microreview: Gods of the Wyrdwood, by RJ Barker

A weak execution of a perfectly adequate idea

RJ Barker has a thing for ineffable, dangerous natural environments. In his first trilogy, The Wounded Kingdom, the setting—the Tired Lands—is blighted by magic, which has stolen life from the land and left a blasted waste in its wake. In his second trilogy, The Tide Child, he invents a deliciously toxic nautical world, where the land hides horrifying perils, while ships built from the very bones of massive sea beasts poison the sailors who crew them. In his most recent novel, the first book of his newest trilogy, he has decided to take a different approach. In Gods of the Wyrdwood, Barker has created a vibrant, magical forest, featuring incomprehensibly (and, to be honest, incoherently—more on that later) vast trees, inhabited by an excellent array of creatures. Yet this time, these creatures are not malevolent. They can be deadly, yes, but there is a difference between danger and malice. This world is constructed of a web of magical connections; if you respect the web, you can live in harmony with it. If you blunder through it in ignorance of all but your own goals, you’re in for a rough (and shortened) life. The ecology of the titular Wyrdwood shows all of Barker’s characteristic inventiveness in worldbuilding, and is the best part of this book.

Outside the forest, all is not well with the world. The seasons have been set askew, replacing the warmth of summer with an unforgiving coldness; toxic bluevein poisons the fields at the edge of the forest; and the wide variety of small religions, each dedicated to one of the previously recognized infinity of gods, have been brutally suppressed in favor of the one Tarl-an-Gig. This would-be monodeity is served by priests, the Rai, whose powers come from a semi-sentient entity—a cowl—that endows them with strength, longevity, and magical powers by feeding on the life force around them. Unsurprisingly, there’s a certain degree of human sacrifice that goes along with such a governmental system, which is not ideal. Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be much murmuring or popular uprising. People seem pretty happy to go along with their new overlords.

In this world we have two plot threads. The first centers on Cahan, an exile who was bought up in one of the mini-priesthoods and endowed with a cowl of his own. He lost everything, though, when Tarl-an-Gig took over, and now he lives on the edge of the wood, in an uneasy alliance with the neighboring town of Harn. The second thread centers on Venn, the child of Kivrin, the secular leader of the main city of Harnspire. Venn is a trion—a third gender in this world, using ‘they’ pronouns—and of particular interest because there is a prophecy concerning what will happen when a trion takes a cowl. The problem is that the process of becoming encowled is not always successful, and failure entails an unpleasant death full of screaming. Nevertheless, the benefits of fulfilling the prophecy are so enticing that Venn’s mother, in an act of extraordinary heartlessness, has been kidnapping and forcing every trion in her power—including Venn—to try to take a cowl. Cahan’s and Venn’s plot threads intersect, and what follows quickly organizes itself into a fairly standard process of self-discovery, family-finding, and conflict between the evil overlords and the virtuous nature-respecters, with the fate of the world at stake.

The problem, unfortunately, is that none of these elements are done particularly well at any level of the narrative. At the broad level, structurally, the pacing feels choppy and uncertain. Cahan’s story begins in at least three separate places, where an interaction between him and the local village leader forces him to undertake tasks that he doesn’t particularly want to do. Each task does set the scene for later developments, but they don’t lead naturally into one another. In between them, Cahan returns to his farm and resets, returns to the status quo, as if the previous events had not happened. It feels as if Barker came up with several perfectly serviceable inciting incidents, but when he couldn’t decide between them to figure out how to get his book started, he ended up cramming them all in.

Kivrin is initially set up as an antagonist of sorts, but she keeps getting outflanked by the Rai leadership, and because she does love Venn (despite setting them up for an agonizing death), she waffles and has doubts about pursuing her antagonistic plot points. And then Barker decides to tack onto her a history of domestic violence, which serves absolutely no purpose that I can figure out, as it is revealed far too late to illuminate anything about her actions or motivations. If I had to guess, I’d say that Barker is trying to rehabilitate her character by making her sympathetic when she and the Rai stop seeing eye to eye. ‘See? She’s a victim too!’ Except she’s not a victim of the Rai; her traumatic past is entirely unrelated to the actions she’s undertaking on her own initiative. It’s as if Barker can’t quite envision a world in which there might be three factions, all mutually opposed, so the instant one party stops aligning with the baddies, they must be forced into being a goodie, however clumsily.

One level down, at the level of description, we have the massive, enormous, mind-bendingly huge cloudtrees, so wide at the base that it takes most of a morning to walk past one of them. Their staggering size is repeatedly emphasized —Barker has definitely heard the phrase ‘sense of wonder’ and decided to run with it— but the details about the scale simply don’t work.

Bear with me here. I’m going to get into Higher Mathematics. Actually, quite a lot of the rest of this review is going to involve math, both with respect to tree biology and then moving on to grammatical complaints as well. It may tax the patience of the most forbearing reader, when really the point I want to make is that there were a lot of irritating things about the description and writing style of this book that badly interfered with my enjoyment of the plot. If you don’t want to slog through it all, that’s fine. Skip to the nice tree picture down below.

Still with me? Great! Let’s go. Suppose that ‘most of a morning’ is, oh, three hours. At a relatively sedate pace of 2 mph, that makes a typical cloudtree six miles in diameter.  It’s made perfectly clear that the branches are to scale with the rest of the tree, so I don’t see how cloudtrees can possibly grow anywhere near each other. Think about any forest you’ve been in: Even in the densest copse, the trees are typically a few tree-diameters apart from each other, aren’t they? They need to leave room for the branches. So, extrapolating to our six-mile wide tree, what we have is less a ‘wood’ and more a situation where you need a full day to walk from the start of one tree to the start of the next.

Now let’s do a little bit more mathematics. Trees' height-diameter ratios tend to be measured in meters/centimeters—i.e., it’s common for the the height to be on the order of 100 times the diameter. In what follows, I'm going to keep the units constant, for clarity. So at a very conservative ratio of just 10:1, that means a typical cloudtree with a diameter of six miles is 60 miles tall. Sixty miles! Forget clouds—at sixty miles, the top of the tree is poking up at the Karman line, one rough indicator for the boundary between atmosphere and space. An alternative boundary, the top of the ionosphere, occurs at 600 miles of altitude, still well within the reach of cloudtrees if they have a height-to-diameter ratio of a perfectly typical 100:1. This is higher than auroras and satellites.

On its own, this is not a problem: magical giant forest trees can be as high as they like. The problem is that, when a tree falls in this book, it’s treated as a major economic event, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to harvest the wood, and all sorts of politicking about whether and who should be notified when evidence of a treefall is discovered. But let’s consider the volume of such a massive thing. Since trees taper at the top, we can use the volume of a cone as a rough approximation: πr²h/3. Popping in three miles for r (half the diameter) and our conservative sixty miles for h, we’re left with 565 cubic miles. That is over twice the size of Deimos, the smaller of Mars’s moons. When something this big crashes to earth, we’re not going to be worrying about the economic and political implications of spreading the news to people in the town a few days away. If we survive the shock wave, we’re going to be more concerned with picking our way through the blasted wasteland left over after an extinction-level event.

I get that the trees are supposed to be big. But I think Barker over-egged the pudding here.

Next, I’d like to pick nits with the sentence-level writing. And, because I can sense the hackles rising and the knives being sharpened, let me hasten to preface my criticism with this: Of course an author should use language freely and expressively to get their point across. Dialect, emotion, pacing, or any of a thousand reasons might lead an author to disregard conventions of writing in favor of narrative effect.

And yet. Sometimes, narrative effects can be overused. Not everything. Must be…Portentous. And Meaningful. And in this case, I’m left wondering: did fully punctuated clauses ever do something to Barker? Did they hurt him? Why does he flee from them, into the welcoming arms of sentence fragments and comma splices?

For example: Here we have early-Scrooge-like stinginess with main verbs, combined with a late-Scrooge-like profligacy with periods, in a pretty characteristic sequence of fragments:

A light.

A small fire beneath the bridge.


Billowing outwards, flames following the pit around, igniting the chemicals from the tanners’ pits. The crack of sap jars burning in the heat. The force of the exploding bottles throwing the makeshift bridge into the air, spilling soldier into the fire below to be impaled as they burned. Screams of fury replaced by screams of pain. Cahan raised his arm in front of his face. Fire hot on his skin. The Rai army backing away from the furious heat.

A exultation within him. Cowl writhing beneath his skin… (loc. 8605)

Because I don’t want my reviews to become sidetracked further into Higher Mathematics, I’ll skip over the bit where I invite the reader to calculate the fragment:sentence ratio in this excerpt, and simply jump to the end: it’s 12:1. In that sequence I’ve just quoted, there are 12 periods, and only one full sentence (Cahan raised his arm in front of his face). Yes, in the heat of battle these sorts of stylistic decisions can be used effectively, but I can’t emphasize enough that this is everywhere. Battle, introspection, dialogue, strolling through the woods—if there’s a page, I can guarantee that Barker put a sentence fragment—or twelve—on it. Again. Over-egging the pudding.

Now, where does he get all these eggs to throw into his pudding of stylistic effect? Where did all these periods come from? Well, given Barker’s propensity to comma splices, I’d argue that they were donated from bits like this:

She sat back, there were still smears of white clay she wore during the day on her skin, it made her face look odd, strangely shaped. (loc. 7739)

Again, I’m not going to say authors should never use comma splices. But I will go out on a limb and suggest that when they use comma splices like Barker does, they give the impression that the writer is not intentionally breaking a rule for stylistic effect as much as blithely walking past it without realizing it’s there.

And then there’s the dialogue. Oh, dear god, the dialogue. Stylistic effect is one thing, but the dialogue becomes downright obfuscatory. I challenge you, dear reader, to figure out who is saying what in an exchange like this, between Rai Galderin (he/him), who is reporting back on an expedition to Venn’s mother Kivrin (she/her):

‘The trion,’ whispered Rai Galderin as he closed with her, ‘will not talk about what happened, and what they do say is not the truth.’ She nodded. ‘Venn walked out of the forest unharmed, while Vanhu, Kyik, and Sorha died. It seems, unlikely.’

‘The false Cowl-Rai?’ Galderin glanced back at the trion standing behind them, not looking at her. ‘Venn says they were badly hurt and they escaped, that he is probably dead. I left a Hetton behind to find the truth of it.’

‘You do not believe them?’ Galderin’s face creased into something dark, something cruel.

‘The details, I think they are true. But they do not tell everything.’ Galderin scratched his cheek. ‘I can find out, if you wish.’ She ignored that, instead stared at her child.

As far as I can tell, the attributions should be something like this, with Galderin in red, and Kivrin in blue:

The trion,’ whispered Rai Galderin as he closed with her, ‘will not talk about what happened, and what they do say is not the truth.’ She nodded. ‘Venn walked out of the forest unharmed, while Vanhu, Kyik, and Sorha died. It seems, unlikely.’

The false Cowl-Rai?’ Galderin glanced back at the trion standing behind them, not looking at her. ‘Venn says they were badly hurt and they escaped, that he is probably dead. I left a Hetton behind to find the truth of it.

You do not believe them?’ Galderin’s face creased into something dark, something cruel.

‘The details, I think they are true. But they do not tell everything.’ Galderin scratched his cheek. ‘I can find out, if you wish.’ She ignored that, instead stared at her child.

Do you see how confusing this is? Do you see how after the speeches that I think must belong to Kivrin, we have a Galderin-action in exactly the place where a speech tag would go? And after Galderin’s final utterance, we have an action by Kivrin? This is everywhere in the book: a character who speaks on the next paragraph does an action immediately following the previous speaker’s words. Dialogue is perpetually being misattributed—except when it’s done the expected way, so I can’t even learn a different convention of speech-attribution, because it’s so inconsistent. Usually I can figure out from context who is saying what, but it’s a constant cognitive load that makes the writing opaque, rather than transparent. Say what you like for narrative and stylistic freedom, but when the writing is interfering with the story, you’ve got a problem.

stock image of a tree

a nice tree that is not interfering
with satellite orbits or extinctioning
whole ecosystems when it falls over

Welcome back! I’m bringing you back here because I want everyone to see my final point about the trions. Did you notice how Venn is repeatedly referred to as ‘the trion’ in the passage quoted above? (Maybe not, if you took the shortcut here. No worries. Venn is repeatedly referred to as ‘the trion.’ There—now you’re caught up.)  Barker loves to use his epithets—‘the monk,’ ‘the forester,’ ‘the weaver,’ ‘the leoric’ [leader]. This is fine. Not my favorite stylistic choice, but fine. But the thing about ‘the trion’ is that, in-world, it is the equivalent of ‘the man’ or ‘the woman.’ It is not an occupation or a position in society; it is a gender. And for all that Barker loves epithets, he doesn’t use ‘the man’ or ‘the woman’ nearly as often as he uses ‘the trion.’ For that matter, he doesn’t even use ‘the weaver’ or ‘the monk’ as often as he uses ‘the trion’ (Yes, I counted: Between locations 7299 and 8513 in the Kindle version, we have 33 uses of ‘the trion’ and only 28 uses of every other epithet combined, including things like ‘the man’ for a character who does not have any other name provided.)

In other words, Venn is repeatedly, perpetually, unendingly referred to solely with respect to their gender—exactly like those incredibly sexist narratives from the 1960s that referred to female characters only as 'the girl' even when they did bother to give her a name. What’s more, Venn’s entire existence in this story actually is predicated on their gender, because they’re the only trion who’s managed to take a cowl without dying (sort of). Venn’s role in this story is to be a trion. And that’s a problem: Just because you’ve introduced non-binary genders in your books doesn’t mean you’ve fixed sexism.

I wanted to like this book so much more than I did. Barker’s Tide Child trilogy was genuinely brilliant and surprising, and I was so excited when I saw that he had a new book out. It will be hard to come back from this level of disappointment.


Nerd coefficient: 5/10, problematic, but has redeeming qualities

  • Great magical creatures and forest ecology

  • Upsettingly large trees 

  • Distressing punctuation and writing mechanics

  • Modernized sexism applied to non-binary genders

CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at

Reference:  Barker, R. J. Gods of the Wyrdwood [Orbit, 2023].