Monday 19 February 2018

Rotherweird review: Entertaining and hugely funny history, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy caper

Fiction: Rotherweird, Andrew Caldecott, Jo Fletcher Books €20.99

Rotherweird
Rotherweird

Anne Cunningham

A telling line in Andrew Caldecott's acknowledgements in Rotherweird, his first novel, thanks his agent and publisher for believing in a book "which did not fit readily into any one recognised genre, in a world where pigeon-holing seems unduly fashionable".

And to pigeon-hole Rotherweird might be to do it a disservice. It's certainly a fantasy, but it's also an historical novel, a mystery caper, a caricature of the quintessential English village and a science-fiction yarn. It seems like the author fetched himself a huge cauldron - not out of place in this saga - and chucked in every genre he could think of, including Dan Brown's obsessive Latin puzzles (although I must stress that Caldecott can write) and mixed them furiously over an intense heat. Rotherweird is the hugely entertaining result.

The town of Rotherweird was founded in the Elizabethan era and decreed by statute to remain completely isolated from the rest of England. It has. There are no maps, no guidebooks, even getting there is a logistical nightmare. History teacher Jonah Oblong must do so, however, to take up his teaching post in the town's secondary school. He is forbidden to teach any history prior to 1800. And, of course, this piques his interest. Another outsider, the malevolent billionaire Veronal Slickstone, has also arrived in town to reside in Rotherweird Manor, derelict for centuries, but now lavishly restored with Slickstone's money.

Their paths are to collide, which is plausible enough. It's a small country town where the population is divided into urban dwellers and the "countrysiders" from its outlying rural zone, who must vacate the town by seven every evening, though nobody is quite sure why.

The town's Mayor, Sidney Snorkel, a tyrant and sycophant in equal measure, is not one for reform. And he has benefited handsomely by allowing Slickstone to purchase the manor. There's obviously something sinister about Rotherweird, and indeed about Slickstone, and Jonah Oblong is determined to uncover it. The problem is his predecessor was equally determined to do just that. And he's disappeared, leaving nothing but a notebook with the pages torn out and a few seemingly innocent doodles on the cover.

The town is financed principally by its scientific research facility in the heavily-secured North Tower, where they make God-only-knows-what and sell it to military weapon manufacturers. The North Tower's brightest physicist, Vixen Valourhand, is deeply suspicious of Veronal Slickstone and embarks on some historic research of her own, with catastrophic consequences.

This is a big, fat book and I must admit that remembering who's who in the story is, at times, confusing. But there's a helpful dramatis personae at the beginning in case the reader comes unstuck. And I'm not sure if such a convoluted plot with its multitude of characters might not have benefited from some further trimming. There were times when I felt the pacing was uneven. But overall, this novel is a remarkable achievement. It's also extremely funny, in a typically British sort of way.

Rotherweird - the first in a trilogy, apparently - is like a delightful Harry Potter for grown-ups, if one can forgive the unforgivable; the inevitable pigeon-hole.

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