|Image from www.quercusbooks.co.uk|
Illustrated by Sasha Laika
Jo Fletcher Books, 18 May 2017
I'm grateful to the publisher for am advance copy of this book via NetGalley. I also bought a copy - well worth it even if only for Sasha Laika's beautiful, brooding illustrations.
You won't have heard of Rotherweird. The town is hard to reach (you have to go to Hoy, change for a taxi to the Twelve Mile Post, then await the Polk Land & Water Company's charabanc). It's forbidden to write about it, and the inhabitants don't welcome outsiders.
Nevertheless, it's a fascinating place, almost an independent kingdom nestling within the English countryside. Created by fiat of Elizabeth I because of - well, that would rather give the story away. Let's just say, because reasons...
Into this somewhat baroque, somewhat Dickensian world come four strangers: Jonah Oblang, the new history teacher for Rotherweird School (forbidden to teach anything earlier than 1800), Sir Veronal Slickstone, the well-known business tycoon, and his wife, Lady Imogen, and son, Rodney. (Some of these may not be all they seem).
The newcomers soon collide with the townsfolk and countrysiders (forbidden to remain in town after 7). Oblong is intrigued by the disappearance of his predecessor, Flask. Sir Veronal has plans for the town. Lady Imogen and Rodney are there to support him, but do they have ideas of their own? And will the Mayor, Sidney Snorkel, welcome a challenge to his authority?
This is an immensely enjoyable, Gothic(ish) / steampunk/ Gormanghast-esque romp with Dickensian overtones. We see a mysterious small town whose secrets are gradually unwrapped - but only partially, to a slew of different characters in different degrees, so the reader has a distinct advantage over any. We see an existential threat - to the town, visible and hidden - develop alongside a slightly petty jostling for status (but nonetheless, a dangerous jostling). There's a tension between the absurdity of the rules that govern the town and a growing realisation that they have a purpose - a serious purpose. There is the unravelling mystery, and a sense that, even behind what are told, something else is going on.
It's a book with swags and swathes of atmosphere, created not only by the prose but through those illustrations (best seen on paper). Rotherweird itself is a great imaginative creation - a city of narrow streets and towers with bridges and walkways between them - but Caldecott doesn't let the start of the book lapse too much into descriptions: the action picks up quickly, with the setting gradually filled in as we need to know more.
To go with the twisty location there's an impressive roster of equally twisty and well drawn characters, many with impressively Dickensian names. Here it's helpful that we're given a list, to prevent confusion of Godfrey Fanguin with Gorehambury, or Gregorius Jones with Hayman Salt (which would be a risk otherwise - as I said, the action gets going quickly and the characters take a little longer to establish themselves).
I have to say that the plot is outrageously complex (more so, as becomes clear by the end, than you would actually suspect through most of the story). Not everyone likes that kind of plot. However - in my view - there's nothing wrong with a complex plot as such, and in any case Caldecott keeps the story spinning along and doesn't allow the story to sag. Indeed perhaps the complexity is as much a hint that there is more to explore in Rotherweird as it is embellishment to this story.
Overall, this is a fun, often funny, exciting and highly readable story. Get it now.
Although the advertised publication date is 18 May this book is already widely available in shops (at 13 May)