Andrew Caldecott: Rotherweird
Illustrated by Sasha Laika
Jo Fletcher Books 2018 (2017)
‘Books reflect interests; interests inform personality and personality decides a course of action.’
— Chapter Six
I feared that this might be my kind of book, which is why I hesitated; and it turns out I was right to fear it. Its labyrinthine plot sucked me in — in a pleasing way — but rather than rush down its myriad pathways I chose to linger over details, ponder clues and savour solutions.
Rotherweird is itself a maze, a Troy Town in which it’s easy to get lost, an elemental island where earth, air, wood, water and fire lurk in uneasy proximity. And where the study of ancient and medieval history is not only discouraged but banned.
As a reader fascinated by history I wondered how its inhabitants would respond to this injunction: what had happened to the natural curiosity that is a basic human instinct? In Rotherweird we discover that it’s there just below the surface of the townsfolk, merely waiting for a catalyst to begin the reaction. Who will it be?
Here is where the past and present mingle uncomfortably: a town of mostly Elizabethan timberframed buildings where anything before 1800 is a closed book, as Jonah Oblong — an outsider hired to teach modern history at the school — discovers. Yet, as we discover, it is in early 1558 that twelve gifted children, themselves 12 years old, are brought in to a small settlement consisting of church, manor house and little else and inadvertently initiate the malaise that has continued to grow up to 2017.
Unlike most fantasy, there is not one protagonist to focus on, an individual who has to confront the main antagonist alone, but a miscellaneous bunch — twelve in fact — who will call themselves a company. It is this multiplicity of viewpoints that renders Rotherweird an intricate puzzle for readers, both savvy and innocent, to pit their wits against.
The novel is no one genre or subgenre: it is at once historical fiction, steampunk, urban weird, portal fantasy, crime thriller, magic realism, roman à clef and alternate history. The town is simultaneously Gormenghast, Hogsmead and the monastery in The Name of the Rose. There is an adjacent world which is a mix of fairyland, the Garden of Eden and some of the worlds visited by characters in the His Dark Materials trilogy; there too is an adversary every bit as sinister as the Man with Thistledown Hair in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. We note a suspicion of outsiders and countrysiders as strong as there is of Muggles in Rowling’s wizarding community; we learn of a compartment that produces abominations much as the teleportation device does in Cronenberg’s film The Fly.
Above all, to lovers of wordplay like myself there are all kinds of lexical games — anagrams, puns, cryptic crossword clues — and allusions to obscure folk practices. Character names remind me most of Mervyn Peake’s nomenclature: references to animals and birds (both real and fabulous), biblical allusions (Jonah in … a coracle race), names like Oblong and Rhombus. Half the fun is solving pointed verbal clues — my historical bias allowed me early on to grasp the significance of ASC — before they are revealed, à la Agatha Christie.
For me the most vivid parallel to Rotherweird‘s Lost Acre is Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted in the years around 1500. Here are visual counterparts of many of the elements of the novel — hybrid creatures, wild swimming, transparent spheres, even a fire in a town on the horizon. Following the text with images of the triptych to hand can be most revealing.
Finally, I come to those dozen gifted children of 1558, prodigies adept in science, philosophy, alchemy and mathematics. The awful fates many of them suffer is fortunately balanced by the genetic legacy they leave in Rotherweird: the modern company which seeks to right the wrongs of the past is said to partake of both old world and modern virtues: chivalry, curiosity and pioneering courage alongside forensic thinking, mechanical invention and social inclusiveness. In this respect Rotherweird may also provide a template for how to live in a world where the fate of both environment and social cohesion is in the balance: a fearful book, then, but maybe one with hope.
The author provides a mini-guide to his invented town here; and this novel is my choice for both the urban weird and portal fantasy categories in my read for Wyrd and Wonder