For me, Andrew Caldecott’s first novel Rotherweird suffered from a mismatch of expectations. The cover and jacket copy (including a quote from MR Carey describing it as “Baroque, Byzantine and beautiful”) suggest a cross between Gormenghast and Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell’s weird and wonderful Edge Chronicles; something Gothic and menacing with a strong sense of place and alterity.
It is not like that.
The titular Rotherweird is a town tucked away in rural England, a medieval enclave hostile to outsiders, history before 1800 and modern technology. Thanks to a decree dating back to the Elizabethan period, it has no MP or bishop, only a mayor; to all intents and purposes, Rotherweird and the valley in which it sits are a realm apart. The story opens as Jonah Oblong, an outsider, takes a post as history teacher at Rotherweird School; as a mysterious set of beads is sold to an antiques shop in the town; and as another outsider, Sir Veronal Slickstone, takes up residence in the long-empty Slickstone Hall that sits at the heart of the town. The tale that unfolds from there reveals the history of the town and its connection to the little universe known as Long Acre, which can be reached from a couple of places in Rotherweird and which is filled with strange and dangerous biological hybrids.
Despite the Gothickry of its subject matter, the book’s actual tone is quite – light; it lacks the steadying sonorousness of Mervyn Peake’s work, which for me meant that the Dickensian exaggeration applied to the characters – most evident in their names, but also in the exaggerated mannerisms of personages like parkouring lady scientist Vixen Valourhand – tipped over into irrelevance. Put simply, I couldn’t find a reason to care about any of these thinly-drawn people in their middle-England bubble.
Actually I think this insular Englishness is a key part of why I bounced off Rotherweird so hard. With its Dickensian references (decoupled from the things that make Dickens great, his anger and his sense of social justice), its medieval architecture and its folk customs drained of religious content – a May morning coracle race down the River Rother; a midsummer pageant that plays host to the novel’s denouement – the novel is conjuring a myth of Merrie England that is exclusively white, straight and cis. Sure, there are some extremely sinister happenings in the town’s past and its present, but its seclusion from the outside world reads very much like a strategy on the author’s part to avoid dealing with anything that’s actually relevant to modern life. I just didn’t find anything for me in Rotherweird, and its total lack of atmosphere meant there was nothing to make up for its irrelevance. It’s not, like, an actively bad book; I didn’t find it offensive, or anything, so your mileage may very much vary. It just – wasn’t for me.