Withering-by-Sea, by Judith Rossell

If you like oppressed orphans, over-the-top adult oppressors who make said orphans sew samplers and balance books on their heads*, secrets that lead to murder in the night in a vast hotel, crashing waves around a crumbling tower,  bottled magical monsters panting to be free, and a villain determined to get his hands on said bottle, Withering-by-Sea, by Judith Rossell (Atheneum March 2016) is a book for you!

The Hotel Majestic might be big and grand, but its curative sulfurous waters hold no charms for young orphan Stella, and it offers few escapes from the unpleasant eyes of her three aunts.   Her only refuge is a tattered Atlas of the World, and one morning, while she is hiding behind ferns in the hotel conservatory, sneaking a bit of forbidden book time in, she sees a man hiding something in one of the plant pots....

And the thing he is hiding is wanted very badly by a nasty man whose repertoire of nasty incudes magical enslavement, murder, and kidnapping.  And when he learns through magical means that Stella has the thing that was hidden, which she promised its dying former guardian she would protect, Stella's dull and horrid life becomes one that is horrid in a much, much more interesting way!

This isn't grand epic fantasy of questy-ness and overthrowing dark lords etc.  It's a much more personal sort of adventure, tightly focused on Stella though with two other interesting kids thrown into the mix as well.   The settings (hotel, theatre, and crumbling tower) are all vividly made real, and the dangers Stella faces makes for riveting reading, once they get going.  Give this one to the 6th grader who enjoys fantasy that has a Victorianish feel, like Maryrose Woods' The Incorrigible
Children of Ashton Place series, or Lemony Snicket, or to any kids around  (though I don't know how likely this is) who are Joan Aiken fans.....

Withering-by-sea won tons of awards and honors in its Native Australia (deservedly so), and I just found out it's the start of a series, which makes me happy! That's the Australian cover at right; not sure why the US publishers decided to disguise the dashes in the hotel's name as curly thingies (it reads to me like a verb clause without clear dashes...)

*incidentally, book balancing is not in and of itself evil.  My sisters and I went through a brief phase of choosing to walk around with books on our heads.  We had obstacle courses and other challenges, and enjoyed it very much. I was also taught embroidery and my father read Silas Marner out loud while we (voluntarily) sewed.....but of course if these things are foced on you by harsh aunts it's a different story.


  1. I LOVED Joan Aiken as a kid. Is she completely out now? I'll have to try her out on my son.

    Anyway, this sounds fun - and I agree with you about the American cover, the title should keep its hyphens to make sense!

  2. This sounds like a terrific book. I hadn't heard anything about it. Thanks for the post.

  3. My kids loved "The Wolves of Willoughby Chase." We'll have to check this one out.


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