Withering-by-Sea by Judith Rossell was published in 2016 by Atheneum.
High on a cliff above the gloomy Victorian 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. Stella dreams of adventuring on the Amazon River—or anyplace, really, as long as it isn’t this dreary town where nothing ever happens. Then one night Stella sees something she shouldn’t have. Soon she finds herself on the run from terrifying Professor Starke and his gang of thugs. But how can one young girl outwit an evil stage magician, much less rescue his poor, mistreated assistant? Perhaps with the help of a mysterious maestro and his musical cats, not to mention a lively girl named Gert…
Withering-by-Sea was a surprisingly charming book. Surprising because I wasn’t expecting the turn it took but I liked it anyway. I especially liked the ordinariness of it amidst the more fantasy elements, like Stella walking around with a book on her head. It’s got just the right combination of normal and odd, and manages to be cheeky and funny at the same time.
Perhaps my biggest complaint is that I wish the ending wasn’t so clearly a hook to get you to read the next book. I would have liked some answers about Stella’s past and to me it didn’t seem necessary to make Withering-by-Sea a starting point rather than a stand-alone novel. Maybe a peek at some of the unanswered questions might have made me like the ending better, but the novel ends very abruptly and that was probably the most jarring part of the whole book.
Also, Withering-by-Sea’s pictures and words were done in blue and I have no idea why.
However, despite the weakness of the ending, Withering-by-Sea is quite a pleasant book, with some charming characters, a great interweaving of fantasy with ordinary, and a lovely underlying humor. I was surprised and pleased by it, and even the slightly worn-out trope of “theater troupe” seemed fresh and new. Maybe I’ll pick up the next book when it’s published and find out more about Stella.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Warnings: Some scary scenes and images.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Middle Grade
There was a shout and an enormous crash from the other end of the conservatory. The Chinese urn lay smashed on the tiled path. Two of the masked men dropped to their knees and scrabbled amongst the broken pieces.
“Go, go, child,” whispered Mr. Filbert. He raised himself up on one elbow. “Go now. Hide it. Keep it safe. Promise me.”
Stella nodded. “I will.”
“Remember…” He started to say something more, but then he collapsed and his eyes closed.
Stella crept out of her hiding place.