Of coracles and crosswords…
You know what they say about judging books by their covers? Well, I did with these because they are lovely lovely covers!
I was also aware of Caldecott, a respected QC in media law with a string of high profile cases to his name – and what appeared to be a whimsical fantasy novel seemed an unexpected direction. Intrigued by the premise and author, excited by the cover art, I had high hopes….
The opening of the first novel, Rotherweird, was certainly slow and ran into several bumps along the road: we open in 1558 and Mary Tudor’s injunction that ten child prodigies be marooned on an island, an order thwarted when the children are sent to the isolated village of Rotherweird instead; we then jump to the main narrative in what appears to be a near contemporary London as the sinister Sir Veronal Slickstone and the gangly, clumsy history teacher, Jonah Oblong begin their journeys to Rotherweird. By this point the village has become a town, granted independence from Britain, with no MP, no Bishop, its own constitution – and no history later than 1800.
Slickstone and Oblong are only the first of a plethora of quirky and oddly-named characters who people Rotherweird. Snorkel and Strimmer, Aggs and Trimble, Finch and Ferdy, Valett and Fanguin… the list continues and is helpfully added to the novel as a dramatis personae in the front. They do, however, slip from the memory a little and merge into each other, especially the more minor characters in the list. As major characters, the narrative focuses on the outsider Oblong and the townsfolk Orelia Roc, Vixen Valourhand, Hayman Salt and Gorhambury – and the enigmatic characters Ferensen and Vesey Bolitho whose characters hold more secrets than are intially apparent, as does Gregorious Jones.
As characters, they are not initially terribly well fleshed out and are somewhat identified by their quirks rather than their personalities. Jones, the PE teacher is perpetually running and usually to the aid of a damsel in distress; Valourhand – for reasons I might have missed – pole vaults around the town’s rooftops. And the third person omniscient narrative switches very quickly from head to head so that from time to time you lose track of whose thoughts you are listening to. Slickstone in particular remains – for the first book at least – little more than a pantomime villain albeit an effectively threatening and powerful villain. There is, perhaps, more development in the second book of the trilogy, especially amongst the female characters, but Caldecott opts for a very plot-driven narrative which offers few opportunities to build character. A coracle race brings some colour to the day-to-day life of the town, as does the Midsummer Fair and, in the second book, Vulcan’s Dance and the elections. In a similar way, the little illustrations by Sasha Laika, which pepper the book, bring a touch of colour:
Rotherweird holds its own secret – which is revealed pretty early on in the first novel – which explains its prohibition against studying history: it contains a portal to Lost Acre, another realm or universe or plane of existence populated by monstrous creatures and containing a “mixing point” into which animals, plants and people can be sent to be merged together into grotesque forms. A collection of four stones placed in various places on a cage seem to be able to control the process and – in the sixteenth century – the mixing point is used by the gifted children to, variously, create monstrous familiars, to punish the recalcitrant and to grant power and longevity.
There is something rather familiar within this strange concept. At times Lost Acre almost felt Edenic, especially as the various cages were hoisted into the mixing point by means of a handy tree. A tree of knowledge of good and evil, maybe.
And as a narrative, the outsider entering a different world and needing everything explained to him is a familiar and useful enough conceit – think Harry Potter entering Hogwarts, perhaps. The towers and architecture and characters in the novel seem to echo Gormenghast or Dickens. And a more sinister threat than Slickstone is revealed at the end of Rotherweird, waiting to be resurrected, again not unlike Voldemort.
The pace of the novel also seemed a little … off. Especially in the first novel: the climax, which should have been iconic and dramatic as a range of plot threads wound together, just seemed a little rushed. A little brief. With an overly convenient invention dropped into the laps of the main characters. The company of quirky heroes are all rather passive: their most significant skills appear not to be combat or strategy but rather anagrams and crossword solving! The second book was more rounded, giving the female characters a little more space, and evened out the pace a little bit more – as well as (apparently) killing off a number of significant characters.
However, whilst it is not perfect, I did enjoy Rotherweird enough to launch straight into Wyntertyde once I had finished it! Which also says something about the post-Christmas reading slump in which I often find myself in January. The third book, Lost Acre, is apparently due to be released in May 2019 and, yes, I will be keeping an eye out for it. Now I know most of the characters.
And I hope to see more from the voiceless Morval Seer.
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Date: 18th May 2017, 31st May 2018