Rotherweird - Andrew Caldecott

Rotherweird - Andrew Caldecott *****

Welcome to Rotherweird. Or perhaps not, since outsiders aren't encouraged to stay in this unusual little English town which would rather keep its secrets to itself, and even from itself, since delving into 'old' history is forbidden there. Rotherweird is hidden in a valley shrouded in mists, a kind of Steampunk fantasy Hogwarts meets Gormenghast, where over the course of centuries cut off from the rest of the world, they have developed their own curious ways and inventions. But that world is now suddenly under threat. And - wouldn't you know it? - it looks like it's outsiders who are to blame.

Although it's perhaps not the fault of Jonah Oblong who has recently been employed as a history teacher there - he has a name at least that fits in well with the other eccentric characters of Rotherweird. He's teaching modern history of course, none of this 'old' stuff, which might be part of the reason why the previous incumbent of the post, Flask, has disappeared in somewhat mysterious circumstances. Someone else however has upset the delicate balance between the various town officials and administrators, and the competitive edge that lies between the scientific research that takes place in the North and South towers of the academy.

The danger is more likely to come from Sir Veronal Slickstone, who has been invited by the mayor Sidney Snorkel to take up residence in the old Manor at Rotherweird. Since Slickstone has recently recruited an actress for his "wife" and employed a "son", you can be sure that he's doubtlessly involved in some nefarious business or other. The population of Rotherweird are intrigued and not a little dazzled by the presence of a titled resident who is going to make quite a splash in the town, but not only do they not know why he has come there, Slickstone himself isn't quite sure what it is he is after either.

All I can say about it is that you're going to have great fun finding the answers to these mysteries since there is nothing predictable or commonplace among them. I'll just leave a hints that there are a few unusual deaths, roof-top vigilantes, bolts of power thrown around, some mysterious portals leading to a land in another dimension and that this dimension is inhabited by part-human/part-animal/part-god-knows-what abominations that have been transformed by dangerous science. And despite the fact that knowledge of old history is forbidden, there are a number of revelations made about the past, which is kind of inevitable since some of the characters we meet seem to have been around for a very long time indeed.

Ah, the characters! The strength and originality of a book like this often lies within the quality of its characterisation and in Rotherweird it's simply wonderful. Obviously it goes beyond the outlandish names and eccentric manners of the likes of Sidney Snorkel, Vixen Valourhand and Sir Veronal Slickstone (although names often have historical meaning and significance here and if you know your Latin you'll be ahead of the game here). Almost everyone - good, bad, mysterious and eccentric - has surprising depths, hidden secrets, specialised interests and unknown talents that make them capable of revealing different and surprising facets to their characters. When even the chivalrous sports instructor Gregorious Jones intervenes and saves the day, it's hard to feel that there are any actual secondary characters here.

What is also great is that Andrew Caldecott provides plenty of opportunities for chance meetings and unusual alliances in entertaining situations like the Great Equinox Race, the Midsummer Fair and other public and private gatherings. As well as forming alliances of the good and the curious, they can also throw up some matters of a romantic nature that are also delightfully handled in the writing. It seems almost a shame that some of the more longstanding historical mysteries are resolved by the end of Rotherweird, but you get the impression that there is so much more than can be done with these characters and this situation, so it pleasing to see that while this wraps up well on its own account, it is also the first of a trilogy, and that is something that is very welcome indeed.

Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott, with illustrations by Aleksandra Laika, is published by Jo Fletcher Books.

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