Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott review – secret science in a fantasy debut | Books

A fantasy trilogy might seem an unlikely venture for a distinguished QC, but Andrew Caldecott has already tried his hand at drama, and received good notices. And on closer acquaintance, there are congruences between the first episode, Rotherweird and his day job. Though it resembles the love child of Gormenghast without the rancour, and Hogwarts without the rightful heir, it diverges from the usual fantasy templates.

Rotherweird’s town and valley are not so much a lost world as a lost gated community, comfortably ensconced in a quiet corner of rural England. The region has been endowed since Elizabethan times with extraordinary exemptions – no MP, no county, no bishop; apparently no police – and protected from outside interference. But why? In the outide world, London is the glass, concrete and steel monster we know, but the currency is in guineas, and the year is around 1966; we are given hints that the enclave is not just a quirky fantasy stage set, embedded in a familiar 20th century. So is there a dark secret behind this mysterious situation? The story Caldecott tells amounts to a cautious, determined and unusually perilous inquiry to find out.

Inexplicable feuds – “countrysiders”, who live outside the town walls, are despised – and charming eccentricities have sprung up during Rotherweird’s splendid isolation. A forest of Italianate towers rises above the rooftops and tangled alleys, linked by a network of walkways known as the Aether Way. Coracle racing on the turbulent river Rother is a local passion; the beer is so good, it’s dangerous; and the municipal gardener, Hayman Salt, is a genius at nurturing the strange and beautiful hybrids he finds in the Lost Acre – nothing like them has ever been seen in the outside world. The town is otherwise a typical heritage attraction, with picturesque festivals, an ancient church and an Elizabethan manor. It also has a fine, wonderfully carved building of the same vintage, Escutcheon Place, still occupied by the hereditary herald. But there are no tourists.

At Rotherweird School, no history prior to 1800 can be taught, but in the North Tower highly profitable technologies, mostly with military applications, are developed. The world-class scientists are not incomers: the Rotherweird gene pool has been rich in talent, especially in the sciences, since the town was founded. So what happened 400 years ago? Are evil forces behind this quarantined concentration of intelligence? Somebody seems to think so.

Whatever horror lies hidden, nobody is too troubled until one day the manor is purchased, refurbished and occupied by a filthy-rich and unpleasant outsider. Meanwhile, Salt finds four coloured stones in the Lost Acre – red, blue, brown and white, representing fire, water, earth and air – and decides to sell them. What are these “medieval worry beads”?

Rotherweird illustration by Sasha Laika

Caldecott’s preamble may seem overlong, but from this point the action heats up…

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