Like a bullet whizzing past your ear, I shudder when I consider how close I came to never hearing about Holly Webb’s mesmerizing, charming, purely delightful Rose. It’s an innocuous little book. Doesn’t draw a lot of attention to itself. The American cover, while attractive, simply shows a girl in a servant’s clothing and a white cat while the title swirls about suggestively. The book isn’t even available in the States in hardcover (!) but paperback, thereby guaranteeing that only the sharpest of sharp-eyed spotters will notice it on a library or bookstore shelf. Add in the fact that the reviews for the book have been good but remarkably sparse and you have yourself a recipe for a hidden gem. An unassuming little British import, this is Downton Abbey with magic. It’s Upstairs, Downstairs with a talking cat. It is, in short, one of those pure unqualified delights that I dearly hope folks will read. If they don’t, the publisher might not bring over the sequels and THAT, ladies and gentlemen, would be the true catastrophe.
Think about it a little while and you’ll see how lucky Rose is. Out of all the girls at St. Bridget’s Home for Abandoned Girls she was the one picked to work as a housemaid at the prestigious Aloysius Fountain’s home. Still, it’s strange. An alchemist in high demand, Mr. Fountain knows how to wield magic. That’s not the strange thing. The strange thing is that it seems as though Rose has some kind of power of her own. She can hear Gustavus the cat talk. She inadvertently saves Mr. Fountain’s apprentice Frederick from a misty monster. And then there are the pictures she sometimes conjures up . . . Rose is perfectly happy where she is, thank you very much. She doesn’t have much use for magic. But when children start disappearing and one of them is a friend to Rose, it seems as though it’s up to her to figure out who’s doing it and to stop them once and for all.
When world building, the children’s author has the unenviable task of setting up the rules without letting them override the plot. If you want to write a book for a 10-year-old, you have to resist the urge to go into intricate details. With Rose I sank into this universe like it was the world’s comfiest plush couch. The beauty is that magic is not something your average everyday person sees. It’s solely a plaything of the rich, though it does filter into some of the everyday details. Once Rose starts working for the Fountain household she gets to attend a church with some fairly magical patrons (and who wouldn’t mind having some moving stained glass windows to watch during boring services?). Plus it’s filled with great details, like Frederick’s grandfather who wished his corpse to be turned into a statue. It’s very easy to understand the class and magic details at work here. What sets it apart, I suppose, is how it deals with its storytelling.
It can’t hurt at all that Rose is an infinitely likable character. She’s got some spunk, and I can tell you that as a kid I would have adored her simply based on the fact that she tries to always follow the rules. When she does break them, it’s only in extreme situations. Generally, she likes her job and her position and can see herself continuing on in this manner for the rest of her natural born life. If only that doggone magic would let her.
When I try to think of books that would go well with Rose I come to the realization that it pairs marvelously with Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis. But from the other side of the fence, as it were. Kat is an upper class little lady who has a talent for magic, though it is not approved up for the well to do. Rose, in contrast, is in a world where the well to do have all the access to magic while it’s the working classes that scrape by without it. And it is this detail that may yet prove the series’ undoing.
If I were to have one objection, it’s not even necessarily a problem yet. But I worry about the implications that Rose may actually be from the upper classes and that’s why she’s capable of magic. Webb is as English and the English come and the book makes some assumptions that give an American gal pause. It seems clear that magic is expensive. That’s completely understandable. More problematic is the fact that apparently only the upper classes are even capable of wielding it. This is so well known that even a cat like Gustavus is aware of the fact (and, consequently, views Rose as an amusing anomaly). Now imagine what will happen if it turns out that Rose has rich and famous parents of some sort and that’s why this lower-class heroine is as capable as she is. That’s the obvious danger, but I’m hoping for something a little cleverer on Webb’s part. Since this is obviously only the very first in a longer series (the villain hardly gets to cackle before defeat, and is bound to have a backstory of her own that we are yet to be privy to) there’s lots of time to upset the rich=magic paradigm. At least I hope so.
One objection I’ve heard leveled at the book from other quarters is that the defeat of the villain hinges on her victimized children finding “hope”. Bull. Sorry, but clearly that particular reviewer had forgotten that while the whole “hope” bit served to save a dying kid, it had absolutely diddly over squat to do with defeating the big bad. That same reviewer commended the book for the fact that so much more attention is paid to the day-to-day workings of an upper class English home, and to that I agree wholeheartedly. There is magic in this book, and you will find it when you need it, but the politics of the servants prove to be just as enchanting as the . . . um . . . people doing the enchanting (as it were).
Harry Potter left a gap in our lives. It created a vacuum for fantasy, and for a couple years that void was studiously filled with quality middle grade fantastical tales. But as time has gone on, fantasies have filtered out of the system a bit. You’ll always find a few good ones in a given year, but few give you that same sense of simple pleasure we felt when Harry confronted the Mirror of Erised or faced off with a basilisk. Holly Webb isn’t trying to write the next Harry Potter. She’s just trying to write a fun little historical fiction alternate fantasy world. It just so happens that in the process she’s managed to conjure up a book that feels good from the get-go. Funny and smart, exciting but never forgetting the rudimentary details of day-to-day life, Rose is the kind of book you could kick yourself for missing. I almost did. Now all I can do is hunger for others in the series to come to the States. Do you believe in magic?
On shelves now.
Source: Copy checked out from library for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis
- The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood
- The Wizard of Dark Street by Shawn Thomas Odyssey