Carolyn Cushman Reviews Sword and Pen by Rachel Caine and Lost Acre by Andrew Caldecott

Rachel Caine, Sword and Pen (Berkley 978-0-451-48924-1, $17.99, 358pp, hc) September 2019. Cover by Katie Anderson.

Things look grim in this fifth and final book in the Great Library series, which picks up right where the previous left off. Jess Brightwell and his friends have finally made it back to the Great Library at Alexandria, and the corrupt Archivist is on the run – but all the powers in Europe are waiting just outside the harbor, ready to move in and take over. There’s no time to mourn their ca­sualties; all they can do is scramble to pick up the pieces and try to establish some sort of defence. Fortunately, they’ve got an impressive pool of talents to work with, including Wolfe’s ability to command, Jess’s knowledge of smugglers and subterfuge, and Thomas’s skill with mechanical devices. But their many enemies, some known, some hidden, don’t plan to give them time to catch their breath, and the result is a thrilling, non-stop series of deadly traps and battles. In the end it all works out, and if things didn’t quite turn out as I’d expected, with a bittersweet development or two, the lack of easy answers feels right for this particular series.

Andrew Caldecott, Lost Acre (Jo Fletcher 978-1-787473768, £16.99, 460pp, hc) July 2019. Cover by Leo Nickolls.

Lost Acre, the third and final book in the Rotherweird trilogy, finds the peculiar town of Rotherweird once again threatened by an outsider who turns out to be part of the town’s forgotten history – in this case Gervon Wynter, who has been plotting to take over and get his revenge for centuries. It’s a rather spectacular conclusion to a unique series, and it’s definitely not the place to hop on for the ride; you want to start at the begin­ning with Rotherweird to get the full immersive experience. (For US readers, Rotherweird came out in July 2019 from Jo Fletcher US, having first appeared from Jo Fletcher in the UK in 2017. Book two, Wyntertide, out 2018 in the UK, is due in the US January 2020.) Rotherweird introduces the majority of the eccentric cast, and the town itself, set in a valley where history is forbidden and much of modern technology (telephones, microwaves, cars) is rejected for the odd inventions of generations of brilliant but not always practical inventors. It’s a place oddly out of time, made so centuries before to save a group of peculiarly brilliant children from Elizabeth I, who feared them. One of the focal characters is hapless history teacher Jonah Oblong, an outsider hired with the understanding he will teach noth­ing that happened before 1800. His knowledge of the outside world and the past (at least parts of it) helps navigate the weirdness that the locals so cheerfully accept. The wonderfully peculiar characters include an overly enthusiastic and chivalrous physical education teacher, an antiques dealer in a town without a past, scientists both sinister and adventurously rebellious, the town Herald (one of the few allowed to deal with his­tory), an underhanded mayor, and many more. What they’re all dealing with is a combination of old crimes coming back to roost and secret portals to another world that holds terrible wonders that could destroy the world – or at least disrupt the annual coracle races. Some revelations, a little romance, and an epic sacrifice bring everything to a satisfying conclusion, but it’s the journey that counts. It’s all truly strange, occasionally horrifying, yet humorous in a very British way, feeling like an old-fashioned classic (with more than a hint of Gormenghast, mixed with a touch of Monty Python, perhaps) with odd puzzles, di­vertingly eccentric characters, some deliberately bad poetry, and an elusive back history meted out in drips and drabs. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for something different.

Carolyn F. Cushman, Senior Editor, has worked for Locus since 1985, the longest of any of the current staff, and handles our in-house books database, writes our New and Notable section, and does the monthly Books Received column. She is a graduate of Western Washington University with a degree in English. She published a fantasy novel, Witch and Wombat, in 1994.

This review and more like it in the January 2020 issue of Locus.

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