‘Withering-by-Sea: A Stella Montgomery Intrigue’ by Judith Rossell
High on a cliff above the gloomy coastal town of Withering-by-Sea stands the Hotel Majestic. Inside the walls of the damp, dull hotel, eleven-year-old orphan Stella Montgomery leads a miserable life with her three dreadful Aunts.
But one night, Stella sees something she shouldn’t have… Something that will set in motion an adventure more terrifying and more wonderful than she could ever have hoped for.
‘Withering-by-Sea’ is one of those uncommon books I’m sure I would have loved when I was a child, and can also enjoy unreservedly as an adult. A Victorian fantasy adventure, it won or was shortlisted for a stack of prizes last year, I assume because it’s delightful.
The book itself is gorgeous: hardcover, with print that is almost blue rather than black, and lots of little inky illustrations. Stella, our orphan heroine, is very sweet, with just the right amount of nerve. We meet her hiding in the hotel conservatory, paging through her precious atlas and avoiding her horrible (and very Dickensian) Aunts. That night, while on a mission to retrieve the book, Stella witnesses a murder, and is entrusted with the care of a curious bottle… thus incurring the attention of Professor Starke.
I’ve always enjoyed a sinister villain and the Professor, with his green-tinted spectacles and snake-headed cane, is indeed sinister – although his Cockney lackeys are EXTREMELY Cockney. He’s just one of a fantastic cast that also includes Ben, a boy able to scry in pooled palmfuls of ink, and Signor Capelli, with his troupe of educated (and highly musical) cats.
The fantasy elements of the book are deftly handled, as is the mystery of Stella’s parentage, which looms larger as the plot progresses. I only wish we could have had some resolution to this; the story leaves Stella about to confront the Aunts, and besides thinking that a revelation might have created a nicer point on which to end, I WANT to KNOW.
‘Withering-by-Sea‘ is fast-paced, often whimsical, a little dark, and completely adorable. A good precursor perhaps to Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events (the advised reading age is 9+). It is the first book in a planned series, so do keep an eye out for more. I most certainly will.