I had such high expectations for Rotherweird – I was hoping for something along the lines of Neil Gaiman or Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London. It seemed to offer the intriguing amalgam of our world and other which first made me fall in love with Harry Potter all those years ago. However, while there are rich descriptive passages aplenty, the obligatory band of quirkily named characters each with their own eccentricities, a heap of detailed backstory and beautiful illustrations are promised in the finished edition, I was not too far in before I hit an issue. I found it all utterly, insufferably, unremittingly dull. At numerous points I considered giving up, but the various other glowing reviews made me keep going in the vain hope that the action would pick up. When I finally hit the finish line with relief, all I could do was promise myself to steer well clear of the remaining two volumes of the trilogy. I wanted so much to like this and instead it has sent me running for the hills.
The premise is that the town of Rotherweird has, by quirk of history, always been independent from the laws, statutes and governance of the rest of the United Kingdom. People shrug and move from this fact without questioning it and travel in and out of the town is heavily restricted and little is known of those who live within. Young history teacher Jonah Oblong leaves a disastrous job without a reference and finds the only place prepared to take him is Rotherweird School where such mundane matters are of little interest. There are certain required conditions however. Oblong will teach modern history only – nothing before 1800 – and studying the history of the town itself is strictly forbidden. As Oblong arrives, so too does Sir Veronal Slickstone, along with an actress being paid to play his wife and a Cockney street child employed to play his son. The ‘family’ set up in the long-closed-up manor and the town’s secrets threaten to spill out.
The frustrating thing about Rotherweird is that it has a lot of the ingredients of an interesting story. A lot of the characters are fascinating but there are far, far too many of them and with so many peculiar names, I found it very difficult to keep track of who was who and I would emphasise here that this is not something I traditionally have an issue with. I did like the simple-minded PE teacher who came so close to winning the annual boat race but then apparently floundered every year because he always sprang to the aid of any ladies he thought needed saving. The kindly publican of “The Journeyman’s Gist” was another character I felt I could have warmed to had he been given more screen time. The actress’ quest to flesh out the character of Lady Slickstone was also interesting. But it was all so bogged down in the backing and the forthing and the black tile and the white tile and the Lost Acre and who knew Latin or didn’t know Latin and who was a countrysider and who was an outsider and who came from town and oh dear – it all got too much. I am beginning to think that Colm Toibin is right and that too many flashbacks are a very bad thing.
The aesthetic was interesting in that it all felt quite Hogwarts-esque (albeit without the ‘chosen one’ hero), but then Rotherweird is a city which has prohibited history, destroys the papers of all deceased persons and celebrates science at every turn. Supposedly the town has a greater than average number of scientific prodigies born within it and the proceeds of the subsequent high rate of inventions being sold to the government is what keeps everything running. Somehow though, it was hard to marry this apparent avante-garde scientific progress up with the Dickensian corruption of the town’s administration – I found myself struggling repeatedly to suspend disbelief. I do wonder if this is part of the issue with reading a book like this on the Kindle; if I had been given a copy with all rather than half of the illustrations, perhaps with fancy creamy paper and bevelled edges to the book, would I perhaps have found it easier to immerse myself in the world that Caldecott was trying to create? As it was, I saw how the percentage complete just did not seem to move and I wondered if time was indeed slowing down.
For me, Rotherweird is one of a few books which I have read recently which have good ingredients but which have been assembled in a haphazard manner, inexpertly edited and then served up – inedible. I have reached a conclusion that I have got to stop finishing books that make me feel this way – this is what I think reading must feel like for those who hate reading. Caldecott has experience as a dramatist and I think that had he been forced to make cuts similar to those necessary to put together a successful stage production, Rotherweird could have been a far leaner and much more compelling novel. As it is, I think he has fallen in the trap of the first-time novelist – just because you’re not paying for the props or the actors’ wages doesn’t mean you need to put in absolutely every idea you ever have or that you keep every single character. Otherwise you end up with this, a book that I desperately wanted to like but which unfortunately bored me rigid.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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Published by Hachette UK on April 25th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, General, Historical
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