Premise: A town which is, to all extents and purposes, completely isolated from the rest of England welcomes in two outsiders. One of these, a history teacher, discovers that his predecessor went missing in puzzling circumstances. The other, a wealthy businessman, seems intent on unearthing the town’s mysteries.
Since I have set out only to review ‘good’ books, I have to ask myself what, exactly, makes a book ‘good’. And to me, a good book is one that I enjoy reading from first to last page. It isn’t one that is hard slog to get into just because everyone else says that it really is excellent when you get to the end of it. And it certainly isn’t one that starts off promisingly and then withers away or has a lack of clarity in its denouement. I’d say that for me to enjoy a book, it needs to be well written (although, there have been some badly written books that I have devoured in one sitting so this admittedly isn’t a hard and fast prerequisite). It also needs to have a fascinating plot (although, again, some authors have such a beautiful, lyrical style that they could be writing about the invention of the phone book and I would still be entranced). And the final ingredient that I think is essential in a good book is that it tries to offer something different to what has been done before – it isn’t just another take on such-and-such, and it isn’t just a rehashing of a well-worn path. It is in this last requirement that I think Rotherweird excels.
The plot is pacey. We are rapidly introduced to the large cast of characters (although I’m glad that this was trimmed down from the even larger cast alluded to in the acknowledgements section!) with their quirky names (Vixen Valourhand, Jonah Oblong, Hayman Salt) and personalities to fit. There is a slice of humour served in alongside their various thoughts and conversations and their relationships and rivalries are described in order to set up the story which is to come. The town itself is evocatively brought to life through the eccentricities of its laws (the inhabitant are prohibited from learning any history prior to 1800; outsiders are not permitted to stay after dark) and customs (a light-hearted section sees a coracle race on the river which is seemingly without rules).
Once everyone and everything has been introduced, we learn of the existence of a place called ‘Lost Acre’ where the town’s gardener goes to bring back hundreds of, as yet, undiscovered species of plants, and where a curious creature called Ferox is guarding a dark secret. This is the bit that I personally found refreshingly original. What is hidden within the Lost Acre isn’t an enchanted kingdom (à la Chronicles of Narnia) but rather a place where magic and science interweave. And whilst, the ‘white tile’ through which Lost Acre is entered might be similar to the wardrobe from CS Lewis’ stories, it is there that the similarities end. Caldecott is not interested in witches and wizards or faux-medieval battles etc. Instead, the plot hinges on the scientific use of ‘Lost Acre’ rather as if it is some sort of Frankenstein’s laboratory. And this certainly provides the book with a unique flavour given that there is a science fiction tinge knitted in with the fantastical setting.
There are bits and pieces that some readers might find a little grating. For example, there were rather a few too many anagrams for my liking in the book’s resolution, and just occasionally I wondered how a town which is supposedly populated by such intelligent people could possibly be so lacking in curiosity about their past. But these are minor quibbles and I for one am very glad that this is the first part of a trilogy and that there are two more instalments to come.
Who might enjoy this book: Someone in the Guardian described Rotherweird as ‘the love child of Gormenghast … and Hogwarts’ and whilst I think it’s more Gormenghast merged with “His Dark Materials” (Philip Pullman), it’s safe to say that anyone who has enjoyed any of those would probably find this to be an excellent read. The humour and quirkiness of the characters also has a touch of Terry Pratchett.
The next book in the trilogy: “Wyntertide”