In Victorian England, Stella lives with her three strict aunts in a large majestic hotel overlooking the town of Withering-by-Sea. This setting offers much to delight the senses.
One day Stella is reading her beautiful old atlas in the conservatory when she sees the new resident, Mr Filbert, hiding a small package in an old urn. Later that night she sneaks out of her bedroom to investigate. What she finds leads to a mystery she has to solve using all the stamina and resources she can muster.
Two items on offer that will appeal to children in the story are singing cats (Alas the cats don’t play much of a role in the story: they are just pets.) and the child protagonist playing a spy role.
I found this wasn’t the most convincing fantasy for children that I’ve read; it lacked an internal consistency which is essential to all good fantasy stories. Some parts seemed to appeal more to adults than children. For example, the reader is suddenly led into a world of ‘dryad tree spirits’, ‘fey’ children and mysterious magical happenings after a rather ordinary and realistic world at the start of the novel. There seems no build-up or preparation, for example, when we learn Mr Filbert was a dryad except the rather odd lot of sticks that his body turns into. The fact that the reader is plunged into all this makes it seem a little less believable. Whilst a pleasant read, I think children would lose interest in the book. It seems to be story layer upon story layer rather than a slow and steady build up to the resolution of the conflict.
Despite the multiple awards the book has received I did not enjoy it as much as other more solid fantasies like The Borrowers or Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh or an Ursula Le Guin, Emily Rodda book. Even Catherine Jinks’ similarly set Victorian inspired How to Catch a Bogle I found a much more captivating read. One wonders whether the number of awards a book is given these days is proportionate to the number of education-friendly themes that can be plied from within rather than the qualities of a truly captivating and absorbing fantasy.
Nevertheless, themes of goodness triumphing over evil, friendship, magic, freedom, escape and adventure make it at the least more commendable than much of what is available at the moment. The vocabulary is excellent for word-building, and the writing is rich in sound imagery and sensory description.
The hardback 2014 edition of this book is a delight to own with its true-to-theme Victorian-style blue-ink illustrations and beautiful ribboned bookmark. Number two in the next Stella Montgomery Intrigue will be interesting.
A former children’s librarian, Jane Fagan is currently a full-time wife and mother of two.