No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, December 25, 2017

2017/103: Rotherweird -- Andrew Caldecott (illustrated by Sasha Laika)

"...we're forbidden to study old history – by law."
"Ha, ha, that's a good one – I'd have to study old history to find out, wouldn't I! So just remember to keep it modern. 1800 and after ..." [loc. 420]
The town of Rotherweird has been isolated from the rest of England since Elizabethan times. It is a small town in a quiet rural setting, located on an island in the River Rother (not the Rother in Sussex, though), and featuring gorgeous Italianate architecture, a highwalk known as the Aether Way, twisting cobbled alleyways, and a main street called the Golden Mean.

Rotherweird also has History Regulations, a fact which at first dismays and later intrigues the school's new history teacher, Jonah Oblong. The Regulations prohibit any teaching of pre-1800 history, and any teaching at all of the valley's own history. Oblong collects scraps of knowledge from the townsfolk, who have Dickensian names and peculiar habits: he observes customs and lore that seem to hearken back to an earlier age, and pieces together the story of this peculiar enclave, which has no MP, no police, no cars, very little technology, and a dire secret.

Oblong's arrival in the town coincides with the arrival of Sir Veronal Slickstone (and his fake family): also, curiously, with the discovery (by municipal gardener Hayman Salt) of four small coloured stones in the mysterious Lost Acre. Sir Veronal is keen to acquire these stones: but why?

Rotherweird is delightfully eccentric, though occasionally overstuffed with strangeness. The description of a fiercely insular community that has persisted for four hundred years, full of clever and innovative people yet isolated from the larger world, is packed with details and subplots: they do all contribute, I think, to the larger arc, but some seem less relevant than others. (On the other hand, this is book one of a trilogy.)

Some of the characters seem like ciphers, with a single role and little character development. (There are some interesting female characters, though, which is a favourable sign.) And speaking of ciphers, I'm at once vexed and amused by the puzzles -- like crossword clues -- that serve to advance the plot, reveal another layer of mystery, at various points. These puzzles are created by an especially opaque character, who may well prove pivotal to the trilogy.

The reviews assure me that Rotherweird is reminiscent of Gormenghast, which [confession] I have never actually read: perhaps the time is right for another attempt. Instead, I'm reminded of James Treadwell's Advent trilogy, for reasons that are not yet clear to me: perhaps the Englishness, the sense of a pagan underswell? And also of Elizabeth Pewsey's Mountjoy novels: perhaps the sense of an isolated English town with idiosyncratic characters and a hint of magic?

A note: the illustrations I've seen online look gorgeous, but they don't display well in the Kindle edition.

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