Sometimes I think I spot books that started as authors doodling maps of imaginary cities. From the maps, cultures and histories arrive, and the author has to splice in a plot to make all the parts move. This isn’t always successful, because the imaginary place can end up seeming more real than the characters walking its streets. Happily, this is not the case with Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird, the first novel in a trilogy. Rotherweird, England, is an isolated town set aside during the reign of Queen Mary to house children born with frightening abilities. Five hundred years later, this history is lost and the town has a reputation for little more than being unfriendly to visitors. Jonah Oblong, a history teacher, is dropped into the middle of the town at the beginning of the novel when he takes a job where he is prohibited from teaching anything before the year 1800.
Rotherweird is very much an ensemble piece. Oblong serves as an expository character so that we can get bits and pieces of history as he is told or figures things out. Meanwhile, various characters—a dodgy botanist, an antiquarian, a physicist, and a man with more secrets than is healthy—slowly maneuver around a conspiracy that dates back to the founding of the town. We see an occasional glimpse of events in the 1570s that shed a little more light on things. Still, things remain murky for a long time while the characters (and we readers) piece things together and create a plan to save their town from being taken over by a sinister billionaire who is trying to buy his way into the town’s mysteries.
Rotherweird is very much a slow burn. The town and its history are so interesting, though, that I didn’t mind taking the long way around. I wanted to know more about what makes the town special. Rotherweird is a hub of scientific discoveries and innovation, though it follows a parallel track to the rest of the country. The town also retains a strictly Elizabethan character. The buildings are stony and half-timber, all grown up haphazardly over time. Oblong scores invites to two of the town’s uproariously weird annual festivals, one of which is a river race using coracles while the rowers (for lack of a better term) are dressed up in elaborate costumes. I love that Rotherweird is illustrated; I wish there were more of them, in fact.
The setting steals the show more than once in Rotherweird, but the plot turns out to be very gripping once the ensemble start to share information and join forces to take down the rich man, upset an ancient scheme, and save the day. The plot definitely rewards the patient. That said, I wish the plot had taken less time to cohere and that the book focused on one or two fewer characters. Rotherweird is not quite a Dickensian sprawl, but it comes close at times. Readers who enjoy big, messy novels were nothing comes easily will enjoy this book very much. I suspect that readers who fall in love with the setting will be pleased to learn that at least two more books follow Rotherweird.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.