by Andrew Caldecott
Rotherweird is indeed an apt title for this strange and original novel. A mix of history, mystery and magic, it is clearly fantasy from the outset, though the real fantastical element takes a while to appear. Rotherweird is a town in rural England, one that has been cut off by statute from the rest of the country and its laws. Surrounded by mediaeval walls and a river, it dislikes outsiders, even the so-called countrysiders, the people who live in the Rotherweird valley but not in the town itself.
‘He smelled the misshapen cat before he saw it, one of his kind, an amalgam of cat, boy and fire, but a creation from the age of leather, velvet and lace.’
The antagonist makes his appearance early on. His name is Sir Veronal Slickstone, and he is clearly the bad guy. Having recruited an actress and an anti-social teenage boy to play his wife and son, he sets out to take possession of the vacant Rotherweird Manor House. Why? Slickstone has everything a man could want and is wealthy enough to buy anything he doesn’t have. But Rotherweird holds a secret, one he clearly will go to any length to possess.
‘The chain judders and Slickstone knows the moment it re-emerges that he has achieved vengeance beyond measure …… He will make the spiderwoman dance all the way to the forest, and there Morval can hide her shame.’
The main protagonist is more difficult to identify. Apart from the outsider, Jonah Oblong, a history teacher, there isn’t one. Even Oblong cannot truly be described as MP; there are too many others aiming for the top spot. Rotherweird introduces us to a coterie of odd, strangely-named characters, none of whom are quite what they seem: Hayman Salt, the town gardner, who has a talent for finding or breeding exotic plants which have no equivalent anywhere in the British Isles; Orelia Roc, who runs the local antique shop for her aunt Mrs Banter; the Polk Twins, inventors, who own the town’s only transport; the mysterious Ferensen; Vixen Valourhand, a scientist with a secret night-life. Indeed, Rotherweird has more than its fair share of scientists, including the children. [The place, you will find, was built on gifted children.]
There are a few “rules” Oblong has to observe: he must not teach history of before 1800; he must not enquire into the town’s history; and he ought not to ask too many questions about his predecessor, Robert Flask. However, he soon learns it isn’t so easy to keep his nose out of non-historical business.
‘ “Die, child,” added the creature as it leapt from the roof and disappeared. Orelia could barely move her feet. Her soles had all but melted through ….. The smoke closed her eyes.’
The fun starts when Salt sells Orelia four coloured stones, which appear harmless but which both seller and buyer feel must do something. Slickstone is after these stones, and is prepared to pay a high price for them. He holds a reception at the manor house for the town citizens, at which he demonstrates he is not only rich but has extraordinary electrifying powers. Then Mrs Banter is killed. Part of the town catches fire and strange creatures stalk the rooftops. Rotherweird, we discover unexpectedly, hides portals to an alternate universe, Lost Acre, where alien plants – some benign, others not – grow and monstrous blends of the human and animal roam the land.
Rotherweird’s history is more arcane, more dangerous and terrifying than anyone can imagine. Its secrets, locked away for centuries and unknown to all but a few, are about to be revealed. Only an unlikely alliance of Salt, Orelia, Valourhand and others can prevent Slickstone seizing the power he seeks. Moreover, Lost Acre is dying and needs another alliance of the Green Man and the Hammer to save it.
‘The old man bends to the telescope, pressing his right eye to the rim. A terrible scream. He falls, hands streaming blood, as Malise smiles. Arms and legs dance in shock as the poison works behind the eye.’
For lovers of fantasy, Rotherweird is an excellent blend of magical mystery and other-world-building. The author challenges Dickens in his invention of appropriate character names. The story does not easily fit into any genre, which is possibly why it was picked up by the publisher – unless that had to do with Andrew Caldecott’s recognition in another field. The narrative and action are quite funny in places, and that is a bonus. For me, the only negative was the universal narration, shifting sometimes without warning between character points of view. There were bits I had to read twice to make sure who was doing what to whom. About half-way through the book, I worried that the author wasn’t going to tie all the strands together by the end. I am pleased to report that Rotherweird is a rounded novel with most of the i‘s dotted and the t‘s crossed. I hate being conned into reading a novel that isn’t complete, but depends on further books in the series! Admittedly, there is a sequel coming, but that’s OK; we are not having to wait for a “Part Two” to answer all the big questions that should have been dealt with already.
Rotherweird is beautifully illustrated by Sasha Laika.