Subtle magic, family mysteries and mouldering old houses are the cornerstones of Wormwood Mire, the second Stella Montgomery intrigue by Aussie author Judith Rossell. If you are into historical fiction for young readers that embraces a bit of the ol’ unexplained, then you should probably jump on board with this series if you haven’t already. The good news is that you don’t have to have read the series opener, Withering-by-Sea, to enjoy this second offering – I myself had forgotten much about the plot of the first book, except for the major points, and found that the small references to the happenings in the first book really provide all a new reader would need to know. Enough blathering though. We received a copy of Wormwood Mire from HarperCollins Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
When Stella Montgomery returned to the Hotel Majestic cold and wet but exhilarated by adventure, the Aunts were furious.
Now they are sending Stella away to the old family home at Wormwood Mire, where she must live with two strange cousins and their governess.
But within the overgrown grounds of the mouldering house, dark secrets slither and skulk, and soon Stella must be brave once more if she’s to find out who – or what – she really is …
From bestselling writer-illustrator Judith Rossell comes the thrilling and magical sequel to her multi-award-winning novel, WITHERING-BY-SEA.
Let me start by reiterating that I really don’t think that one has to have read the first book in the series in order to fully appreciate this one. I found Wormwood Mire to be a much more intriguing and multi-layered story than Withering-by-Sea, and overall would have to say that I enjoyed the reading experience much more. Stella, whose is alone in the world but for a collection of cranky aunts, is sent away to live with her as-yet-unmet cousins, Strideforth and Hortense, at the crumbling estate of a long-dead relation, after the shenanigans of the first book. Stella, having never met her cousins and never attended proper lessons at all, is understandably nervous about the move, but hopes that spending time at the estate will allow her to discover more about some of the mysteries surrounding her family and her strange new-found abilities.
Happily, while Stella’s cousins possess a few interesting personality traits, the trio gets along famously and we become privy to the real mystery of the book – the bizarre collection of plants and creatures kept on the estate by their ancestor, Wilberforce Montgomery. This is not the only mystery that Stella hopes to shed light on though; she is also much interested in finding out more about her mother and two children in a photograph, who Stella suspects are herself and a long-lost sibling. Add to this set of puzzles a rather unorthodox (and quite shady) dentist and travelling showman, a ghostly figure flitting about the place and townsfolk whispering about history repeating and you have all the pieces in play for a particularly intense game of discovery and derring-do. As with the previous book, the pace and overall tone is quite sedate, but the multiple, interconnected mysteries add plenty of depth to the story and I was drawn further in to the search for answers with every passing chapter.
The house itself was a wonderful addition to the story and almost a character in itself, with secret passages and exotic artifacts squirreled away by Wilberforce Montgomery. Hortense’s collection of truly outlandish animal friends also adds colour (and chaos!) to the story, with a disagreeable and downright naughty mollyhawk who squawks in fluent latin and an extremely bitey ermine just two of her unusual menagerie. Another highlight of the story is the multiple references to Stella’s book of cautionary tales, received, of course, from the nefarious aunts, A Garden of Lillies, in which children who stray from following the instructions of their elders meet various unpleasant ends, recounted in rhyming couplets. I’m fairly sure that these little interludes are a nod to Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies and provide just the right amount of comic relief.
Once again this tome contains some gorgeous ink wash illustrations, some as whole page images and others fitting around the text throughout. The style of illustrations, as well as their greenish tones, add to the sense of place and the historical setting in which the story unfolds, and as I always say, any book – every book – is better with pictures. The chunky hardback format and the included ribbon bookmark make the reading experience satisfyingly tactile too.
I am very interested to see what happens next in this series, as this book ends on an unexpected and revealing note. Given that this story was so different to the last, I am sure that Rossell will have something equally diverting for Stella Montgomery’s next intrigue!
Until next time,