Gosh! Wyntertyde had left us on a cliffhanger: a second mixing point was discovered; Bolitho was revealed as Fortemain and then dispatched; the vile Calx Bole had succeeded in resurrecting his master, Geryon Wynter, after five hundred years dead.
We return in this, the third and final book in the series, to the secluded and very British valley town of Rotherweird, cut off from the rest of England and its own history by a series of legal and historical precedents. A seclusion build on hidden secrets which the series has already generally revealed: Elizabethan child prodigies (note how I avoid the challenge of pluralising the word “genius”!) known as the Eleusians; Lost Acre, the other place, a mysterious alternate universe of wild and hybrid creatures and the ‘mixing point’ in which chimera and monsters can be created of animal and people and apparently eternal life granted; the sinister mystic, scientist, megalomaniac, monomaniac Geryon Wynter, reincarnated and returned at the conclusion of Wyntertyde through the service and sacrifice of his shape shifting colleague and Calx Bole.
Wynter’s renaissance somewhat eclipses the chaos of the election of mayor in the previous book and he slowly ingratiates himself into society, prominence and power. Some of our main point of view characters start to question the narrative which places Wynter in the villain’s mantle. Has he been misunderstood? Misrepresented?
Ranged against Wynter and his army of apothecaries and followers are a ragtag ensemble: Jonah Oblong, a gangly and socially awkward historian and outsider who struggled to find a niche in Rotherweird for two books and doesn’t seem to have much more success in this one; Gorhambury, the fastidious and particular town clerk; Vixen Valourhand, a scientist and somewhat rogue character vaulting around the rooftops of the town; Gregorius Jones, a PE Teacher whose role increases significantly in this novel; the mysterious Ferensen, previously Hieronymous Seer and his sister (and erstwhile spider-hybrid beast, now in recovery) and artist, Morval Seer; and Orelia Roc, local shopowner and mayoral candidate and the closest the series has to a hero. Maybe. And Tyke: immortal, enigmatic, innocent and Christ-like.
None of the characters particularly take prominence and it is hard to identify a protagonist of any of them; and none of them feel terribly fleshed out and at least partially identifiable as tropes. This is no Stoker-esque band of light to set against the dark but a fractured and fractious group of individuals with separate agenda and only occasionally working together – and even then a little suspicious of each other. And they seem to do a lot of waiting. Perhaps “agency” is the word I’m striving for: very few of the characters possessed agency. Events happened to them, more often than not; they didn’t particularly work towards an end point. And as for the more secondary characters, I’m not entirely able, even after three novels, to separate some of them – Smiths and Strimmers and Snorkels. As a teacher, as a reviewer, I want to describe them as thin or two-dimensional…. and yet I still ended up caring for them and liking them. Roc – possibly underused – and Oblong perhaps had the strongest journey; and thankfully the romantic subplot trope between them was avoided – although some love interests were a little clumsily shoe-horned into the final chapters.
The central character in the novel and in the series, however, is the town of Rotherweird itself: Gothic and Dickensian and … Gormenghast-ly. Towering rickety buildings, dark alleyways, hidden catacombs, aerial walkways. Strange and arcane traditions which are both sinister and delightful. Town and country divisions and tensions strangely resonant with current politics.
There is an intellectual and erudite mind behind these books: dare I say the mind of a geek and a puzzle enthusiast. Which is not unexpected as the author is also a barrister. Mythology is entwined through and redolent within the pages of the novel in a way reminiscent of a crossword. Central images of trees and the alternative reality of Lost Acre recalled the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and explicitly Yggdrasil. Some characters consciously drew from myths: harpies and chimeras, Persephone. Christ. Nothing that required knowledge of the mythology to grasp, but enough that it sparked off those little connections – glints of light as other stories slide through the narrative warp and weft of this one.
The writing is decent – albeit on occasion with slightly dizzying shifts in narrative points of view so that it can become a little confusing whose point of view you are being presented with. But I had a few gripes: description and atmosphere was at times sacrificed for plot and I personally would have liked to have spent more time in the eponymous Lost Acre.
In short, a clever, quirky and enjoyable jaunt into a gothic mystery spanning the millenia between Roman invasions (Gregorius), the Elizabethans (Bole and Wynter, Ferensen and the Seers) and the modern day. The word that comes to mind in retrospect is perhaps charming…
Disclaimer: I received a free ARC of the novel in exchange for an honest review. And apologies to Jo Fletcher, the publisher, that I did not get a review up earlier: as a teacher June and July are in the middle of exam marking period! Sorry!
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Date: 25th July 2019