Rather uncanny

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

38 thoughts on “Rather uncanny

    1. It’s not absolutely perfect—in a novel with such complicated plotting I wasn’t totally convinced by every development—but as a bravura display it was fascinating. And it’s part of a trilogy, so I’m hoping some of the loose ends will eventually be cleared up! Definitely worth looking out. 🙂

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  1. Hm, sounds interesting. It’s not published in the US yet, but it sounds like the sort of thing the public library ought to get…I’d like to give it a try.

    PS I’ve been reading Lud-in-the-Mist and it’s neat — different than anything I’ve read before.

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    1. Hope you get lucky through your library service, Jean. In fact Rotherweird has a similar vibe to Lud-in-the-Mist — eccentric individuals, anachronistic small English town, traditional ways having to cope with change and/or innovation — even the gap of a century between them (1926 as opposed to 2017) hasn’t really effected the approach that much as computers, TVs and radios are banned along with ancient history!

      With the third instalment of the trilogy due to be published in a month or so’s time I’m surprised this hasn’t already been made available in North America — maybe it’s too quirky British, or perhaps they’re waiting for a Netflix/HBO/Hollywood adaptation? I gather the film rights have already been bought up.

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      1. It’s entirely possible that somebody waited for the rights to be bought. The first volume is supposed to publish in the US in July, and the second looks like January? It’s surprising, the amount of stuff that does not make it over here, or only shows up late and sparse.

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        1. I suspect the reverse equally applies, Jean.

          By the way, you may have seen from my review of Lud-in-the-Mist that I speculated that the town may have been based on Rye in East Sussex, as Mirrlees may well have known the area (her friend Vita Sackville-West lived not far from there). Turns out (and I should have remembered this from a stay in the town) that a river Rother flows into a nearby canal near the town. Perhaps Rotherweird is based on Rye? The author’s grandfather, who was also a writer (of ghost stories), was born and died in this part of the world. Biographical details of this book’s author are sparse and limited to the same few details (he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry) so I can’t tell if he has any connection to Rye.

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            1. Thanks to this conversation, Jean, I’ve just posted an amuse-bouche suggesting Rotherweird as Rye which I hope to expand on in a later post.

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    1. Not quite sure what you’re saying, Col, it’s deliberately baroque, if that’s what you mean by laboured—it’s no more realistic than a Feydeau farce or a Restoration comedy, and there are dark bits deliberately reminiscent of a Webster revenge tragedy. It’s not going to be to everybody’s taste, that’s for sure, but it was to mine!

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        1. Yes, I see what you mean, it does seem rather gauche. However, there is a real river Rother flowing through East Sussex and Kent before joining a canal just above the town of Rye, and as the fictional town is located on a river Rother that part is credible. ‘Weird’ is of Germanic origin, ‘wyrd’ meaning destiny, and that part is less convincing.

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            1. Exactly. (With a nod to Shakespeare, of course.) It’s surmised that Macbeth‘s three witches were related to, if not the same as, the Scandinavian Norns and the Moirae of Greek myth who as you know wove individuals’ lives and destinies into a tapestry of their making until the time came to cut the threads. Also known as the Fates, the fata of Italian lore, the French fée and the English ‘fay’ or ‘fey’ (from which we get faerie, the Land of the Fay) still retain an aspect of deciding human futures by granting three wishes and the like. As you already know.

              But why Rother-weird? Maybe, because of the river that surrounds the town, there is a connection with ‘weir’, that is, the suggestion that the Rother is ‘weired’ at this geographical point. Just playing with words, of course! 🙂

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  2. This mostly feels sinister to me. But then, I struggled with Gormenghast so perhaps that tells me something. Glad you enjoyed this so much, Chris, especially as it seems you have two more volumes to look forward to. Not sure it’s for me though!

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        1. This, by the way, is the author’s own justification for writing the series: “… informed by his love of history, which he studied at New College, Oxford, he was seized by the notion of a city-state hiding a cataclysmic secret.” As a legal eagle, a distinguished QC no less, you can see why he may be obsessed by secrets within a state: he was a counsel in both the Hutton and Leveson inquiries.

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    1. “Interesting” is a good description, Piotrek, though I’ve seen the odd critical review irritated by what I see as minor shortcomings. But by all means go for the Gormenghast trilogy first!

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  3. This. Sounds. AWESOME. Not trivializing here, but reading your review I couldn’t help but wonder if this is the sort of plot M. Night. Shyamaylan (sp?) wanted to swing in that film The Village, but didn’t know how. Your photos are deliciously enticing, too. 🙂 This is the sort of genre-bending’n’blending that helps keep storytelling vibrant and fresh. I was just talking to Bo about genre while in the car for a family gathering, and it’s pretty clear that for a story to engage, it can’t just connect all the familiar dots to make the same ol’ picture we expect to see. Sometimes the truly unique images take dots from a bunch of different pages torn from books and scattered about the floor.

    (Not sure I want Bash to do that sort of thing, but then, I wouldn’t be all that surprised 🙂

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    1. Not seen Shyamalan’s film but reading the plotline I can see the similarities. It is weird in the same way that, say, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is weird, both strange and familiar but with the familiar twisted almost out of recognition. I think you may enjoy it!

      The photos are of Shrewsbury, a town about 80 miles from here, with many medieval and Tudor buildings and twisting streets to get lost in — a bit like Rotherweird!

      I agree with your analysis, Jean — exciting new stuff often if not always comes out of a combination of disparate things, rarely out of a lazy rehash of what came before. Rehash may be fine for comfort reading but I never find it stimulating or challenging.

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      1. *gasps* you mean the home of the amazing monk detective Cadfael?!?!?!?! Well that’s one more place to visit before I die 🙂

        Exactly so. But as both Diana Wynne Jones and Bo lamented, how is a book or film supposed to be marketed without at least some degree of pigeon-holing? Even though, say, Star Wars fits all the marks for a western, it certainly wasn’t *marketed* as a western, but science fiction/adventure. (Granted, that’s a pretty extreme example, but we’re packing for a family outing so my brain’s a bit frazzly.)

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        1. Yes, that Shrewsbury! I’ve not read the books (just one of her detective novels: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-shadows) but I did watch a couple or so of the Cadfael TV episodes when they were first broadcast.

          Genre: the fact that titles, when they start to become popular, can be repackaged for different markets — as they did for the Harry Potter books, His Dark Materials and so on — is evidence that if publishers so wish (and they had confidence in their product) they could promote different editions aimed towards children/YA/adult, or fantasy/thriller and so on. Look at The Name of the Rose: is that a medieval whodunit as the Cadfael series was to be, or is it historical fiction, or to be classified as literature in translation? Bo and DWJ are right about marketing, but good storytelling to good storytelling in my book, and in yours too I suspect, and we’re not alone! Star Wars is a perfect example…

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          1. I love Derek Jacobi! And Name of the Rose is an excellent example of crossing the genres. I do indeed just love a good story no matter the genre. I think that’s why I can enjoy Pride and Prejudice one day, Dark Crystal the next, and Shaun of the Dead the next, and so on… 🙂

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            1. I’ve seen mixed reviews of the new Dark Crystal film, but I remember taking my son to the first one when it came out. Maybe that helped inspire him for the TV work he’s now doing (The Durrells, Doc Martin etc)…

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