Book Review: Wyntertide - Andrew Caldecott

Wyntertide - Andrew Caldecott ****

The promise of a sequel to Andrew Caldecott's previous novel Rotherweird certainly took away some of the disappointment of arriving at a conclusion; such were characters, imagination and the rich eccentricity of the fantasy world that had been created by the author that it would have been a shame to end it with just one book. There was still an element of doubt remaining however where Wyntertide could go, since a great many ancient mysteries had been resolved and a number of secret identities uncovered, and a number of the main players - like Sir Veronal Slickstone - had been 'eliminated'. Considering the enclosed nature of the world of Rotherweird, it was hard to see how the material could be further expanded without going over old ground again.

There is another difficulty that presents itself when you begin Wyntertide. Such is the peculiar nature of the work, the wealth of characters and the nature of the writing itself, that it is initially very difficult to enter that world again. Certainly for a new reader there is no concession made in Wyntertide for anyone who hasn't read the first book, with no easy introduction to who these eccentric characters are, no recap of the events that occurred in the first book Rotherweird, other than in obscure references to mixing points, to stones providing access to the Lost Acre, and to mysterious, shape-shifting forces that appear to still be at large and presenting concerns for the inhabitants - mainly academia - of the town. Even for anyone who has read Rotherweird, it's hard to grasp the nature of the characters and their relationships to one another, such were the extraordinary events and changes that occurred over the course of first book. The charm seems to be wearing off.

As for whether there is any new direction that the book can take, well if you put aside those initial concerns about the old-fashioned eccentricity of the treatment and no small amount of confusion about what is going on - with all its esoteric references, arcane knowledge, cryptic messages and anagrammatical names - Caldecott does eventually get around to exploring other worthwhile secrets and history that remain in Rotherweird and fashion it into another wonderful adventure. Sir Veronal Slickstone might be gone, but the extraordinary prearranged spectacle of Bolitho's funeral with its cryptic messages, and some further delving into the forbidden history of the forbidden experiments of Wynter at the end of the 16th century, suggest that there is still great danger to the rather special status and character of life in Rotherweird.

The principal crime of Wynter was his experiments with a 'mixing point', where poor humans were mutated into monstrosities by combining them with other creatures. That much we knew from one or two of the creatures who appeared in the last book, but in Wyntertide we discover that there are more creatures still at large in the world than the dangerous shape-shifting Calx Bole, and since some of them retain visible human characteristics, they are not so easy to identify, and may indeed have been living among the citizens and academics of Rotherweird for some time. What also provides new ground in Wyntertide is the coming up of the term for re-election to position of mayor of Rotherweird. Sidney Snorkel, the incumbent, is a rather slippery individual, and armed with volumes of obscure regulations and protocol that he has taken measures to deny to others, he doesn't intend to relinquish his position easily. There are however a number of challengers, and a few 'new' characters among the 'Summoned' (those of Rotherweird origin living in the outside world, called back to vote), who have taken an interest in working alongside the candidates - no doubt for nefarious purposes of their own. New powers have arisen!

So, yes, there are certainly more than enough secrets and insights into the strange fantastical world of Rotherweird to provide plenty of additional opportunity for adventure, and indeed, extend the scope of it beyond just being a curious little community in a forgotten valley. It's a closed-off and isolated community, but it still has to co-exist with the world outside and do commerce with it, and therein lies some of its problems - problems that perhaps have resonance with a certain insular English mentality that is becoming more pronounced these days. Caldecott however is far more ambitious than merely presenting a parable and pits many other contrary forces together in the differences in attitudes and behaviours of the progressive scientists and the traditional crafts and guilds. More than that, there is a bigger picture evolving in Wyntertide, a grand conspiracy in the wider world that plays the long game with historical events that set plans in motion to be fulfilled much further down the line.

If you can get past all the eccentricities and deal with the initial confusion (I found the first quarter of the book hard going despite having read Rotherweird) then little by little Wyntertide draws you back into this wonderful little alternative universe that is more than slightly out of step with the world outside, and delightfully so. What finally brings it to life again are the characters who are not just wonderfully eccentric, but fully rounded with different aspects to their personalities, which can even be quite spiky. There's a darker side in operation here and even a little more of an erotic edge to some of the characters this time that causes a not insignificant amount of heightened tension and friction, not to mentions some manipulation as well. Not unlike the magical stones in the book, when you bring everyone together, "the effect of so many contrary forces" causes sparks fly, revelations to emerge and considerable upheaval for Rotherweird this time around. The revelations and changes indeed come so fast (and from obscure clues and hidden messages), that it can still be hard to follow, but Caldecott's writing is literally spellbinding in how it brings magical elements together to charm the reader. As with the first book, Aleksandra Laika provides some wonderful illustrations that just add just another level of wonder to the magical universe/multi-verse of Rotherweird.

Wyntertide: Rotherweird Book II by Andrew Caldecott is published by Jo Fletcher Books on the 31st May 2018

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