Rotherweird, by Andrew Caldecott, is a fascinating book that fights you every inch of the way. The story spans over 400 years, but only a few square miles in location. It does an impressive job building a quaint and homey English village that feels like the perfect place to put your feet up, while also leaving you to drown in the middle of a sea. The book is a master of atmosphere and a fool when it comes to narrative structure. Whether you like it or not is going to come down to how much patience you have and how much you like quiet English towns. Rotherweird is slow. While the page count is around five hundred, the text is small, the pages are large, and the prose is dense. It’s also the first book in a trilogy of the same name, so there is a lot of story to dig into. The problem with this smorgasbord? It’s a buffet that Caldecott put at the top of a tall mountain – you need to work hard to get it.
Here is the plot of the first book, as I understood it after finishing it, laid out in clear terms: Rotherweird is about a strange isolated town in the English countryside. In the 1500s, a number of children with magical powers were found and it was determined that they should grow up in an isolated setting to keep them pure from negative influences. These kids were shipped to the town of Rotherweird where no one is allowed in, no one is allowed out, and people aren’t supposed to even talk about its existence. Unfortunately, isolating a lot of children with god-like powers and no adult supervision leads very quickly to a Lord of the Flies situation. Things start to go very bad, and then we fast-forward four hundred plus years to see Rotherweird in present day. The town is still standing, despite the ensuing apocalypse you saw approaching, but things don’t seem quite right. We then start to follow the POV of a pair of outsiders, a rare occurrence in Rotherweird, who come to the town with hidden agendas. Both of these characters are trying to dig up the town’s past, hoping to piece together what happened all those years ago.
This is how Rotherweird could have read, but instead, we get a jumbled mess. The pacing of the story is erratic, to say the least. Chapters will jump between three different time periods (the way past, the recent past, and the present) seemingly at random. I never got a strong grasp of why there would be an unexplained chapter that lurched us 400 years into the past for exposition that didn’t seem relevant for what was currently happening in the present. It slows the momentum of the book to a glacial pace and changed a book that should have taken me a few days to read, to a two-week affair. It almost feels like Caldecott heard secondhand that flashbacks make books better, so he just spun a wheel and inserted them. The book is also broken up into “months” as chapters, with each chapter telling the events that happen in one month of the year. It was a novel concept but suffered from an uneven hand. Some months result in chapters that comprise almost a fourth of the book and others have single pages detailing a few key events. By itself, it wouldn’t be that problematic, but when combined with the erratic time jumps, it forges an anchor that weighs the text down.
But, if you can look past the pacing issues and the narrative whiplash, there are some good elements to sink your teeth into. Rotherweird’s greatest strength is its sense of atmosphere. The town that gives the book its namesake feels like a real tangible place that I have been to. The shops are adorable, the neighbors annoying, and the streets can be pictured down to the bricks. While the prose is dense, it does build comfortable layers of immersion over time and makes Rotherweird a place worth exploring because it has secrets worth finding. There is this strange slice-of-life quality to the story where characters are rushing around trying to save the world, but also stopping to compete in a town-wide game of capture the flag. It somehow blends very well and feels extremely British. There is also a nice streak of dry humor that wrung a few laughs out of me.
One of the other things I really liked about Rotherweird is its strong sense of mystery. The book is pretty brazen early on in indicating that there are things going on under the surface in this strange town. This sense of mystery is further enhanced by the fact that Rotherweird is a place that mixes the ordinary with the occult in order to disguise what is happening. Everyone has secrets, some people are having affairs while others are immortals chained to the stonework until the end of days. This mixture of the mundane and the magical makes it a lot harder to ferret out answers and makes the puzzles a lot more fun to solve.
If you have patience and tenacity you can squeeze water from the stone that is Rotherweird. The narrative fights you at every turn in a way that is counterproductive to enjoying the book, but there is an interesting story under the pacing issues. The book’s strong sense of place made it one of the more memorable books I have read recently and despite my frustrations, I am still curious to see where the series goes next. If you are wondering if this book is for you, it will likely boil down to how much English period pieces and mysteries are ‘your thing’. But if you are looking for a fast-paced jaunt, I would look elsewhere.
Rating: Rotherweird – 6.5/10