I stumbled across Rotherweird when attempting to buy a book for someone as a gift. Now maybe that’s a trap some people don’t want to fall into. Me, on the other hand, I saw it as a challenge. It was the second book I picked up in Waterstones that day. Undecided on whether to buy What The Hell Did I Just Read or this, I went to the counter.
‘Which would you buy?’ I love to employ the knowledge of staff at shops, even if they get asked that question a hundred times a day. The counterhand helpfully suggested that I go for the fantasy rather than the horror, and expressed to me that she’d been excited about Rotherweird before it’s release. I’d managed to pick it up the day it had come out in shops. I couldn’t decide whether this hype was a good or a bad omen.
By lucky happenstance, I ended up purchasing both books. Rotherweird ended up falling into my hands due to the recipient of it as a gift not fancying it over the other book. I said I’d take it on, guinea pig it before they read it.
I’m glad I did, because I would not choose to buy this book as a gift for someone else again.
Oh, Caldecott. Where to start?
As an ex-lawyer, you can’t imagine he’s a terrible writer. After all, if John Grisham can pump out 42 bestselling novels, why can’t any lawyer? Apparently Caldecott has tried his hand at the role of playwright in previous years, and this is his debut novel.
As a novel… it’s not… no, I can’t. I can’t say it’s not bad. You can see the playwright peeking through in one most obvious way: his characters. I’ll start there. You see, the town of Rotherweird is inhabited by a lot of strange and quirky characters with strange and quirky names. Unfortunately I don’t think Caldecott has grasped the concept of avoiding naming too many characters with names beginning with the same letter – we get Ferensen, Fanguin, Ferdy, Finch, Ferox. We get Oblong and Orelia. Slickstone and Salt. Veronal and Valourhand. Clearly he’s fond of certain letters, but for a book with a large cast and small page count, at times it’s difficult to keep track of who is who.
It’s also difficult because of his chosen narrative style – which I definitely think has been influenced by his experience writing for the stage. We are regularly in each character’s head, but viewpoints and thoughts aren’t separated by chapter or scene; rather, they’re amalgamated on the same page. Occasionally they are separated by line break or scene, but this isn’t consistent, combining for a confusing narrative overall. Additionally, the characters do tend to all express themselves in the same way during dialogue. Perhaps the most distinctive are Salt and Aggs, but this doesn’t provide much relief.
The characters themselves are developed little and don’t much change over the course of the novel – clearly, this is a plot over character style book. I’m fine with that. Perhaps if the author had spent more time developing each character and less time just inventing a character whenever the role was needed (combining characters is very effective for cutting your cast down and making your characters altogether more interesting), the plot could also be tightened without needing to give ‘screentime’ to each of the numerous cast.
Overall the style of the novel was acceptable and readable, although it had this odd wordy quality and often came across as snobbish English. I’d have to read more of the author’s alternative works to see whether this was a tone decision or just the way he writes.
I did notice a red flag ( for me personally) when he repeated use of the word “insalubrious” within the space of three pages. I’m sure these weren’t the only uses of this word throughout the novel. This is a big no-no for me as use of such a memorable and standout word should be restricted to once per novel (I’ll remember if you use it more than once, but forgive you if the uses are spaced out). It felt as though Caldecott was attempting to meet some kind of ‘word of the day’ quota, or had the word at the forefront of his mind as he wrote this scene and forgot to edit it out later to vary his vocab a bit. I also picked up on a typo – “Rothwerweird” – further on in the novel and couldn’t help thinking overall that it’s poorly edited.
I enjoyed the plot – no, let me rephrase. I enjoyed the premise but the plot itself could have been executed in a smoother fashion. I would have appreciated a viewpoint character – or a maximum of three. The novel could have benefitted from dropping more hints for the reader rather than explaining them as soon as a character discovered something about the mystery of the plot. Or what tended to happen more often was that a character would realise something but it wasn’t fully explained in a way that the reader could keep up with. This later lent itself to the necessary use of two expositional moments where the cast explained everything to each other as they all had fragments of knowledge of what was going on.
In the end this contributed towards the ending falling flat, and I found myself skimming the last 100 pages. The villain didn’t have me invested. His motivations weren’t entirely clear. He seemed evil for evil’s sake (“I want to rule the world because POWER!”). The mystery of the plot was revealed – or guessable – early on, but what I would have preferred was to be able to guess at answers to clues, so I that I felt I knew things, but wasn’t fully aware yet what was going on.
A lot of clues were randomly guessed at by the characters or explained away by their “above average” intelligence.
The time period seemed incongruous with the modern setting of 2016 – and this was never fully explained. The characters didn’t act as though they were from the modern day. It was more of a 1970’s or earlier feel – even 1910’s – again explained away by Rotherweird’s independence and development of ‘alternative’ technology. Would being cut off from the rest of the world mean that a state of above average individuals would rely on steam-punk inspired technology? (Also, if you’re going to go with steampunk, just commit fully).
Overall this has a 5/10 from me if I were to rate it. It’s not terrible but it feels unfinished, as though it’s still an early draft. Caldecott might want to consider returning to writing for the stage rather than the sacred novel.