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Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott

The town of Rotherweird stands alone – there are no guidebooks, despite the fascinating and diverse architectural styles cramming the narrow streets, the avant garde science and offbeat customs. Cast adrift from the rest of England by Elizabeth I, Rotherweird’s independence is subject to one disturbing condition: nobody, but nobody, studies the town or its history.

For beneath the enchanting surface lurks a secret so dark that it must never be rediscovered, still less reused.

But secrets have a way of leaking out.

Two inquisitive outsiders have arrived: Jonah Oblong, to teach modern history at Rotherweird School (nothing local and nothing before 1800), and the sinister billionaire Sir Veronal Slickstone, who has somehow got permission to renovate the town’s long-derelict Manor House.

Slickstone and Oblong, though driven by conflicting motives, both strive to connect past and present, until they and their allies are drawn into a race against time – and each other. The consequences will be lethal and apocalyptic.

Welcome to Rotherweird!

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana once wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” No one in Rotherweird appears to have ever heard that turn of phrase. In the dim and distant past, the town’s founding fathers decided it made sense to bury their collective heads in the sand. A declaration was made; delving into what had gone before was strictly forbidden. Their reasoning? If no one knows the town’s history then it can’t cause any problems, can it? Turns out the answer to that question is a firm no. The history of England’s most insular community steadfastly refuses to remain hidden. Secrets will be revealed and the truth will out. It’s not just the town’s curious attitude towards the past that is raising eyebrows. Why is the Manor House now in the hands of an outsider, Sir Veronal Slickstone, and why is he so obsessed with everything and everyone? The new history teacher, Jonah Oblong, is determined to uncover the answer to all these questions. Even after he discovers his predecessor disappeared in “unexplained circumstances”. All he has to go on are a series of progressively more cryptic clues

At first glance, Rotherweird sounds like a splendid place to live. There is the unrestrained excitement of The Great Equinox Race. The latest Rotherweird fashions are available for purchase at Ragamuffin down on Grove Lane. If you want, you can pop down to The Journeyman’s Gist and imbibe a pint or two of Feisty Peculiar with Bill Ferdy. The town sounds like quite the rural idyll, I’d move there in a moment. Of course, looks can be deceiving.

There are some genuinely eccentric characters to discover. You’ll not be surprised to learn that the town’s inhabitants are all just a bit odd. This is an ensemble piece, the lives of each person meanders in and out of the main narrative like the flow of the river Rother. The little details in Andrew Caldecott’s characterisation elevate Rotherweird to the realms of something quite special. For example, the names of the characters are a constant source of delight – Sidney Snorkel, Godfrey Fanguin, Rhombus* Smith, Oriela Roc, Vixen Valourhand and Hayman Salt to name but a few.

There is a marvellously anachronistic quality to Rotherweird. The town exists in its own little bubble and feels like it exists outside the normal constraints of time as well. The author does nothing to dissuade the reader from coming to that conclusion. There is a nostalgic tone to the writing which made me smile on numerous occasions. Characters like Gregorious Jones have an almost archaic patois. Makes sense I suppose, he is like the living embodiment of chivalric attitude. Every female he meets becomes a damsel in distress. Of course, he is always wrong in that assumption. The good ladies of Rotherweird are a formidable bunch who are more than capable of looking after themselves.

I’m a sucker for slightly off kilter stories like this. Part fantasy, part mystery, Rotherweird is delightfully strange and it revels in that strangeness. It feels like it is a natural successor to the “Mouse” novels by Leonard Wibberly. In fact, part of me hopes that Rotherweird and the Duchy of Grand Fenwick share the same literary universe. What could be better than a collection of unconventional characters embroiled in a labyrinthine plot? If he was still around I’m sure Peter Sellers would have had a field day transferring Caldecott’s novel to the screen. He’d probably have played three or four characters himself.

My musical recommendation for Rotherweird is the soundtrack to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Beniot Groulx and Beniot Charest. It seems only appropriate to me that a magical novel requires a suitably magical accompaniment.

In conclusion, there can be little doubt that Rotherweird is indeed Rotherweird and the good news is that it is also Rotherwonderful.

Rotherweird is published by Jo Fletcher Books and is available now. Highly recommended, I think novel will eventually be viewed as a modern classic.

*If I ever have a son, I pledge to you now that I shall name him Rhombus.

Rotherweird


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