The thing about an RJ Barker story is this: you can guarantee each one will be different. His first trilogy centred around political assassins. The second had boneships and pirates. This one is his most original. The world building works on so many levels. In my opinion, it’s an analogy of our own world. His environmental message: protect nature because it will do the same for you. Fight against it and you will always lose. Let me explain what I mean.
As dark fantasy goes, this story’s shadows reach beyond the forest and into the hearts of those whose grip on power is cruel and ruthless. The Rai, whose cowls demand to be ‘fed’ by the death of others, are the villains here. They represent a newly-established god and ensure everyone is too frightened to worship anyone else. Fear reigns. The struggle for survival extends to those who live on the margins of the Wyrd Wood. The forest claims its victims with a plethora of flora and fauna that kill in so many unpleasant ways.
Our protagonist is Cahan Du-Nahere. Irritable, impatient and a social outcast, he’s not a sympathetic character at the start. We engage with him as his principles prove he is a good man, a strong warrior. It’s his training, as a child, that has brutalised him. His respect for the forest separates him from everyone else.
It is this respect which leads to the environmental messaging in the story. Cahan tells the locals the forest will tolerate them only if they take what they need to survive and no more. To live within their means. To respect the flora and fauna, which won’t attack unless provoked. Society’s leaders are different. They are obsessed with power and care little for anything beyond their own needs. Familiar, eh?
You can always rely on RJ Barker to deliver a bunch of evil, cruel and utterly unpleasant villains. In this story, he does not hold back. They are everywhere. Torture is a common device. The Rai especially have a lovely approach to making people suffer long and agonising deaths. It had me squirming in places. But this all-pervading evil takes many forms and makes for uncomfortable reading sometimes. Towards the end I couldn’t read fast enough to find out who would survive and who would suffer terribly as they died.
Yet there are moments of great tenderness, loyalty and heroism too. This well-maintained balance draws you into the story, immersing you in its drama. It’s hard to put the book down for that reason. For this is a story which will define RJ Barker as a major force in fantasy literature. He promises to be a twenty-first century Tolkein. The messaging, the characters and world building are handled by a master of his craft. It is sublime.