Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott

For a significant portion of the time I spent reading Andrew Caldecott's Rotherweird, I had very little idea of what was going on. That's not because it's a difficult read, as such - it's not. But the basic premise is so odd (and yet seemingly accepted as normal by everyone involved) that there are a lot of 'Wait, what?' moments as it gets into its stride, and just when I thought I more or less had the measure of it, something more odd would happen.

From this description you might be thinking that Rotherweird is a China Mieville-style, hipster-cool, high concept fantasy set in worlds so different from our own that they feel like staring at a prog rock album cover during an acid trip. In fact, it could not be less like that. 

The Rotherweird of the title of is a town in England, surrounded by a small area of countryside in valley of the River Rother. Rotherweird is independent and self-governing, along with a small area of surrounding countryside. It seems to consider itself part of the UK, but it has no MP, and apparently no police force either. Its citizens have no real signs of anything approaching democracy or accountability. Its technology seems to be more steampunk than anything else (there are no cars, computers or phones) and yet it has two towers devoted entirely to science and invention. Similarly, it expressly forbids the teaching of any history pre-1800 with severe consequences for transgressors, but at the same time is obsessed with tradition, to the extent that it seems to have an annual festival devoted to its own sport of coracle-racing.

Into this closed world comes a rare visitor, Jonah Oblong, brought in from outside to teach at the town's school. Oblong is a history teacher, which puts him in a rather risky position for obvious reasons. Also arriving in Rotherweird from outside is Sir Veronal Slickstone, a sinister and mysterious character who moves into the local manor house with a 'wife' and 'son' played by actors. The arrivals of Oblong and Slickstone form the catalyst for the action - although I use the term loosely, because this is not a fast-paced novel by any means. There's a lot of scene-setting, which often leaves the reader more confused than they were before, and a lot of world-building and introducing of characters (there's a list of them at the front of the book, and you may well need it). It's rather like Gormenghast, but if Gormenghast were a gossipy provincial market town instead of a gloomy Gothic castle. Like Gormenghast Castle, Rotherweird is full of eccentric characters and peculiar customs, and it also has Gormenghast's sense of a closed environment in which the inhabitants are powerless to escape their predetermined roles.

Rotherweird is, however, nowhere near as melancholy as Peake's work, and towards the end of the book there's a sense of camaraderie between Oblong, the outsider, and a mismatched group of locals who come together to avert disaster. I would have liked this element of the story to kick in somewhat earlier, as the characters make a pleasing ensemble, but, as I said, this is not a fast-paced read. Progress is slowed further by flashbacks to Tudor times, which at first I found irksome, but whose relevance did become clear later on and which tap into some interesting themes, particularly about the very Elizabethan notion of science, mysticism and magic overlapping into a single discipline,

What we don't see in Rotherweird is a great deal about its relationship to the rest of England, and I was left wondering about this. Has everyone in England heard of it? Do people ever visit? The town seems to be walled, but what about the countryside around it? What year is it supposed to be? In fact, there were quite a few other things I was left wondering about too, but it's important to remember that this is the first book in a trilogy. There are seeds sown that don't seem to grow and flower, so you may be left dissatisfied unless you're committed to reading the next two books, Wyntertide and Lost Acre.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I haven't done this yet - but I am intending to. Rotherweird is barking mad and does have its faults, but I find I'm starting to think of them more as quirks, and I've been sucked in. Possibly, as is the case for some of the characters, at my peril.