Rotherweird’s title and back cover blurb almost put me off reading it, which would have been a shame The groan-worthy pun of the title, coupled with the breathless, “Welcome to Rotherweird: a town with no maps, no guidebooks and no history, but many, many secrets … ” struck me as twee. I worried Rotherweird would be smugly quirky in a way that I would find off-putting. But ultimately, rather than feeling that Caldecott was condescendingly serving up his wit, I felt as though I had been invited into a childhood pretend-game, allowed to join in someone else’s expansive daydream, where things happen mostly because it would be wonderful for them to happen. I also found the several recommendations the publisher had printed on a glossy red band and fastened around my copy of the book (and which other potential readers may encounter on Goodreads) to be misleading. M. R. Carey’s description of the book as “'Baroque, Byzantine and beautiful - not to mention bold” led me to expect a dense, tight network of prose, but that really isn’t Rotherweird. It is a book to read lying back on summer grass. Characters do a lot of stumbling into and upon places, and I did not have a sense of a strong hand, either of a protagonist or a narrator, driving the plot forward. Still, despite their haphazard course through the story, the characters are purposeful and engaged, inquisitive and striving, and so is the writing. The plot all pulls together efficiently in the end, and the book feels planned and deliberate.
One word from Hilary Mantel’s blurb that I do feel is accurate is “crisp.” The writing is a true pleasure, containing delicious turns of phrase such as “ … she had seen electricity crackling between his hands, as if he were coaxing it out. She thought of how Nature sourced such energy--cat fur, eels and thunderclouds--and could find no parallel” (131). The briskness of the writing may speak to the author's experience as a playwright, though Caldecott seems to be fairly new to both forms, having turned to creative writing (Rotherweird being his first novel) after a long career in law.
The basic plot follows a large cast of characters as they learn the secrets of Rotherweird, a strange town chartered under mysterious circumstances in England’s Tudor period, which is both independent of the rest of England and prohibited from knowing anything of its own history. The novel’s point of view is omniscient; we shift without flourish or portent from person to person in a manner I found appealing and readable. We spend the most time with Jonah Oblong, a history teacher who (all too understandably, in our current job climate) takes a bizarrely advertised job in Rotherweird because it’s what he can get. Rotherweird, however, is definitely an ensemble piece.
All of Caldecott’s characters have a Dickensian feel to them, but some have more of Dickens’ irresistible vividity than others. Gorhambury, Rotherweird’s rule obsessed, kind, and much taken-for-granted clerk is my favorite of Caldecott’s creations:
He looked the part: slight of build, with an incipient stoop, skin the colour of faded paper and a gaunt face whose expressions inhabited a narrow range between mild concern and deep anxiety. He wore three-piece suits (jettisoning his waistcoat only at week-ends), with shirts, dark navy blue ties unspoilt by any hint of decoration and brogues as shiny as liquorice. His work absorbed all his energies, leaving no appetite for love, fine food or the social whirl. He never complained, despite being taken for granted by the Mayor, and he brought to his interpretation of the law a firm sense of fairness and decency. (p. 100)
I admire both how quickly and how likeably Caldecott sketches Gorhambury—“shiny as liquorice” seems particularly well judged here, as does “jettisoning his waistcoat only at week-ends.” On the other hand, although Vixen Valourhand (an angry young pole-vaulting scientist with a flair for making a scene) appealed to me most out Caldecott’s women, she remained a little too elusive and contradictory for my taste.
I like Rotherweird. I like its people, its places, and the events Caldecott stages in it. I like the slow, off-beat march of time. Rotherweird’s annual boat race, completed in costume, gives me one of my favorite scenes I’ve read this year. The race has for generations coincided with an unpredictable surge in the river, sending our ensemble cast tumbling into a series of fun situations and providing a series of striking images (“Angela Trimble, who’d drawn E37, stood motionless, a Viking, pole held upright like a spear, her flaxen hair platted down her back. Maroon ribbons crisscrossed her legs from knee to ankle. She shut out the human sound and concentrated on the river. Somewhere upstream, deep and out of sight, the swell would be building” [p. 182]). I also love the even stranger world Rotherweird opens onto (white and black tiles that transport characters to a strange place where animals and plants are curiously hybrid, and dangers lurk, and a weaselman speaks Latin, and a slippery patch of the sky transforms what touches it).
I am therefore not criticizing, but rather simply noting the fact, when I say that the town seems more like the setting Caldecott desired for his story than like what its residents would necessarily build. Although Rotherweird’s past explains Rotherweird’s present, and that fact is obviously important to Caldecott, it doesn’t feel like Caldecott has set himself the task of working through what this town would most reasonably be like given its beginnings. Aspects of the world building could disrupt the picture he is trying to draw, but Caldecott doesn’t let them—for instance, Rotherweird is a major exporter of modern weapons technology, but Caldecott keeps this work largely obscured from view—the science we see is weird, magical, and ancient. Periodically, in sections labeled “Old History,” the novel jumps back to events occurring during reign of Queen Elizabeth. These events bear directly on the plot, particularly with regard to the magical/scientific experimentation of several varyingly sinister characters.
The promise of a new SFF book with a connection to Early Modern/Renaissance England was part of what drew me to Rotherweird. In this respect, I was amply satisfied. The novel references the enigmatic John Dee in passing, but the explicit hat tip mattered less to me than the way in which Caldecott successfully makes use of the potential of early modern science writing to inspire some truly weird SF ideas, and captures the feel of this era of science brilliantly. The mixing of various creatures into monsters is documented in a book called the “Roman Recipe Book.” This weird old book looks as though it could be a cycle of songs, ending with a song about ordinary humans. That detail is both wonderfully in tune with early modern bizarreness, and deliciously creepy.
Caldecott also deftly evokes other styles and tones I don’t see very often in the SFF I read, but which I have encountered as an enthusiast of the early modern period. He briefly, though very successfully, draws on Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, riffing on Webster’s interest in women exerting their self-command in dark, twisty dungeons. He does this through the character of The Actress, a woman who the cold, ruthless, and curiously bleached Sir Veronal has hired to play his wife (purely for the sake of appearances). I do think he could have found more to do with this character, and allowed her to make a little more of a mark on the plot, but the moment in which she descends into a hidden tunnel, clad in a white dress, was quite successful in reminding me of the Duchess’s courageous composure in the face of imprisonment, cavorting madmen, wax effigies and severed limbs, all of which her brother brings before her (I highly recommend the play).
I also don’t mind that although the book is set in 2016 (this is not explicitly mentioned, but a plot point does hinge on this detail), and although characters do have commerce with “our” world, the story doesn’t feel “of the present”. It seems to draw more on English folk horror (i.e. The Wicker Man, or my personal favorite, Children of the Stones). The conflicts people face in Rotherweird, large and small, do not really feel like to me like our present conflicts, or like past conflicts that still haunt our present. Rotherweird is not a social novel. As Erin Horakova has observed, many 20th and 21st century writers have drawn on Dickens’s approach to character and his love of the grotesque without taking up the more political aspects of Dickens’s work. This is true of Caldecott, but as I have noted, he is doing other things instead. My one complaint in this respect is that the pseudo-past Caldecott creates via the town of Rotherweird seems to contain only white, straight and cisgender people. The past has been remembered in this way for too long despite significant evidence to the contrary, and writers should push back against this.
At the end of the novel, Caldecott’s characters work together to puzzle out an anagram, which, in turn, solves a final driving mystery and reveals a final plot twist. I found this scene to be the least compelling in the novel. I did see why Caldecott revealed the mystery in this way: it was his way of showing that history, and collaboratively working to puzzle out history, can be exhilarating. But that fell flat for me--I felt this was what the book wanted me to feel, but not what I felt. The anagram itself was a bit tortured. It also resulted in a complete revision of my understanding of who one character was and what they had been doing with themselves. I don’t generally like these sorts of surprises. I don’t mind adjusting my view of a character as I read, but I don’t like my sense of who a character is to be totally annihilated. Realizing that character A was actually character Q abruptly cancels the complicated feelings I’ve been developing towards that character and replaces those feelings only with an unpleasant sense of surprise. I am still disappointed that Mad-Eye Moody never turned Malfoy into a ferret. It’s infinitely less fun and interesting for Barty Crouch to have done it.
That said, this is a minor flaw. Rotherweird was a pleasure to read, far surpassing the bar its promotional materials set for it. The marketing copy for Caldecott’s book takes on the unenviable task of giving a prospective reader nearly instant knowledge of everything that could possibly entice. That pressure to do everything at once is nowhere more apparent than in the laundry list of authors whose fans would appreciate Caldecott (Deborah Harkness, Hope Mirrlees, Ben Aaronovitch, Mervyn Peake and Edward Gorey). It’s efficient, but these comparisons tell me very little about whether I would like the book, and the length of the list feels a little frantic. Perhaps I am contributing to the problem in closing with a comparison of my own to Woolf’s Orlando, but I hope the luxury of space will make a difference. Orlando has an airy, yet incisive quality; a purposeful dreaminess; images that stick with me, yet prose that does not labor to describe. So does Rotherweird, and that is what I like best about it.