Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird (review copy from Jo Fletcher) is a glorious tale of historical mystery, peopled with compelling eccentrics and drawing on a rich heritage of English folk tales. It’s a compelling page-turner from start to finish.
Rotherweird is an isolated place. Cut off from the rest of England since Tudor times, it exists under its own laws and rules under the custodianship of hereditary office-holders. With his career in tatters, Jonah Oblong takes a job as history teacher at Rotherweird school, but under the stricture that all the history taught must be modern – nothing older than 1800. Another outsider – Sir Veronal Slickstone – has bought the local manor house, which has been closed up since time immemorial. He moves to the town with his wife (an actress) and his son (an urchin pulled off the street) and seeks to make big changes in the town. The timing of Sir Veronal’s arrival is no accident. Unbeknownst to the townspeople, Rotherweird’s past is about to come to the fore, putting all their lives at risk. It’s up to Jonah Oblong and a band of Rotherweird inhabitants to solve the mystery and save the world by piecing together the past.
Rotherweird is unmistakably English as a novel. It is steeped in a certain type of English folk tale, like the Lambton Worm, and draws on iconography around the Green Man and English folk rituals such as festivals and passion plays. The Rotherweird raft race is straight out of a school of British local customs that bring you cheese rolling, bog snorkelling and Straw Bear Day. And it is peopled by Great British Eccentrics throughout, all of whom are written with a delightful lightness of touch, while never falling into the trap of becoming simplistic or two-dimensional.
But Rotherweird is also a fantastically rewarding and convoluted mystery story. Along with Jonah Oblong and friends the reader pieces together the history of Rotherweird and the Lost Acre, a place of fantasical flora and fauna that can only be reached through a special portal. Although the story wraps up satisfyingly well, there are just enough loose ends left to keep the reader guessing. Caldecott has a sequel planned: Wyntertide. I for one, can’t wait.
Goodreads rating: 4*