Stella lives with her three Aunts in a majestic hotel along the coast. Her Aunts are miserable and mean, demanding that Stella be quiet and dutiful. Stella though would rather read the dilapidated atlas that she discovered only partially burnt in the garbage pile behind the hotel. That is why she is in the quiet conservatory and witnesses something being hidden in one of the planters. The knowledge is just one part of the mystery that is about to unfold in the hotel. It is a mystery that Stella finds herself caught up in, taking her away from the hotel and her dull Aunts and into a world of magic and new friends and enemies that even the atlas could not fully prepare her for.
This Australian import is an entirely captivating read. It has an engaging old-fashioned feel about it, particularly with the Aunts and their disapproval of anything childlike or fun. The structure of Stella’s life shouts of Victorian expectations and then the story opens into riotous action, bewildering dark magic, and daring adventures. The quiet of that early part of the book serves to make the adventures even more thrilling due to the contrast.
Rossell uses setting to great effect in this novel, creating a series of discrete worlds where Stella explores and lives. First is the hotel itself, filled with staff and the Aunts and its own secrets. As Stella walks the hallways, Rossell describes them so completely that one is walking alongside the character. Then there is the pier along with its theater that Stella longs to visit and then gets to deeply explore. Finally, there an ancient castle that has such a dramatic setting that plays a role in the entire tale.
A strong female protagonist, deeply lovely settings and intelligent escapes mix with magic in this remarkable story. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum.