Those readers who have experienced the delights of Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird series (Rotherweird, Wyntertide and Lost Acre) may have some inkling of what to expect from the first of his latest duology Momenticon. That earlier series dealt with an English town cut off from the rest of the world, alternate realities, bizarre inventions and a roll call of eccentric characters. But even those readers may have to recalibrate their expectations in the face of the sheer post-apocalyptic weirdness that makes up Caldecott’s latest novel.
Momenticon opens in a museum full of famous art works under a lonely dome in a dying landscape. The museum has been looked after for the last three years by a young man called Fogg but has received no visitors. As the third year ticks over strange things start to happen, including Fogg finding a pill that gives him Monet’s perspective of painting his water lilies; discovering that a young woman called Morag Spire has been living above him in the ceiling of the museum for three years; and being visited by two malicious young men dressed as Tweedledum and Tweedledee out of Alice in Wonderland. Morag and Fogg catch each other up on the previous three years before the story itself catches up to the present and then hurtles forward.
There is so much going on in Momenticon that it is hard to encapsulate. But the overarching narrative is a battle for control over the remains of a damaged world between the two powers (Genrich which specialise in cloning and Tempestas which can control the weather) with Fogg, Morag and their allies caught in the middle. The battle takes place in landscapes that have been recreated to resemble famous art works which contain not only people but robots and genetically altered creatures (including those resembling characters out of Alice in Wonderland). And that is before we get to the momenticons themselves – pills that can transport the taker to another world – which only a few, including Morag and the evil Cosmo Vane, have the power to create.
Readers of Caldecott’s previous work will recognise many familiar elements but deployed in a new guise. The fundamental battle between good and evil, a range of characters with Dickensian names (such as Oblivious Potts, Peregrine Mander and Hilda Crike), a steampunk aesthetic (the main characters get around in windbag operated airships and there are plenty of automata), puzzles and quests, and a very English sensibility. But here, being post-apocalyptic, Caldecott also has a strong environmental point to make.
Momenticon is wild but fun and works within its own increasingly crazy frame of reference. The trick is to accept the fantastical premise, don’t wait around for too much exposition and go with it. While the Rotherweird series took a while to get going, Momenticon is more stripped back, only providing a little backstory before dropping straight into the action. After which it feels non-stop: constantly splitting the protagonists up and bringing them together again, delivering a series of growing climaxes and then leaving readers hanging for a concluding second volume.