Author Holly Webb
Published September 3rd, 2013 by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Pages 240 Pages
Intended Target Audience Middle Grade
Genre & Keywords Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Magic, Mystery
Part of a Series? Yes (Book 1 in the Rose series)
Source & Format Purchased from Chapters, Paperback
Find It On Goodreads ● Amazon.com ● Chapters
Mr. Fountain’s grand mansion is a world away from the dark orphanage Rose has left behind. The gleaming, golden house is practically overflowing with sparkling magic – she can feel it. And though rose has always wanted to be an ordinary girl with an ordinary life, she realizes she may possess a little bit of magic herself.
“He’d found her in the churchyard, sitting on the war memorial in a fish basket and howling. If Rose had been given to dreaming like the others, she might have thought that it meant her father had been a brave soldier, killed in a heroic charge, and that her dying mother couldn’t look after her and had left her on the war memorial, hoping that someone would care for a poor soldier’s child. As it was, she’d decided her family probably had something to do with fish.”
Named for the flower that was in bloom when she was first brought to St. Bridget’s Home For Abandoned Girls at the age of only one, ten-year-old Rose is a ward of the state after being abandoned on a war memorial in a churchyard as a baby. But while the other girls at St. Bridget’s desperately hold on to relics of their past and dream of dashing suitors, generous benefactors and heroic parents who come to rescue them from a life of domestic servitude, Rose has a very different sort of future in mind, one in which she’s self-sufficient and able to earn her own living with a little hard work and a lot of determination. So, when a mysterious woman dressed all in black arrives at the orphanage in search of a girl who can be trained as a housemaid and Rose is chosen, it seems as though all of her dreams have finally come true. Employed in the home of Mr. Aloysius Fountain, famed alchemist and Chief Magical Counselor to the Royal Treasury and the Mint, Rose is quickly transported into a world she could never have dreamt existed. But even Rose has a few secrets of her own. With the ability to conjure up images with her mind and carry on conversations with Mr. Fountain’s cat, Gustavus, Rose will soon be forced to confront the truth about her own rather unique talents and what role, if any, they can play in the rescue of the local children who have suddenly begun to go missing in the area.
“Rose was remembering the illustrations from Morally Instructive Tales For The Nursery, which was one of the books in the schoolroom. The two little boys who owned the boat in the original story fought about who got to sail it first, which obviously meant that one of them drowned in the fountain. Most of the books in the schoolroom had endings like that. Rose quite enjoyed working out the exact point when the characters were beyond hope. It was usually when they lied to get more jam.”
It isn’t often that I pick up a middle grade novel. Not because I don’t enjoy the stories themselves or find them entertaining enough, but rather because I often have a difficult time connecting with them on a deeper emotional level. That said, after reading a series of wonderful, albeit serious and melancholy contemporary young adult novels, I knew I needed a change of pace. I was desperate for something a little lighter and a lot more fun, and with the promise of magicians and witches, talking cats and mist-monsters, Holly Webb’s Rose seemed like the perfect choice. While I found that the pacing was inconsistent at best and I experienced the same disappointing emotional disconnect I often do with novels aimed at this age group, Rose was a diverting, relatively fun novel with a strong premise and an interesting protagonist. Did I mention the talking cat?
“Just mind the rose bush as you drop down,” she warned him. It’s prickly. And I was named after it.”
Freddie gave her a look that Rose suspected was meaningful. “They aren’t connected!” she whispered crossly, as she padded across the tiny square of grass to the window.”
As a character, Rose is an interesting study in contrasts. Unlike many of her fellow orphans at St. Bridget’s Home For Abandoned Girls, Rose is a practical, level-headed girl with clear, concise goals for her future. She’s under no allusions about her possible family history or what the future holds for her and asks little from life apart from normality and stability. Despite this, however, Rose is also imbued with an unexplainable magical ability that allows her to conjure up fantastical images with the sheer force of her imagination. Much of the novel focuses on this duality in Rose’s nature and her attempts to reconcile these two seemingly disparate elements within herself. Rose is desperate to lead a normal, trouble-free life, but has a natural aptitude for magic and is inexplicably drawn to it, despite her best efforts to avoid it whenever possible. This internal struggle between duty versus desire and Rose’s attempts to discover who she truly is added unexpected depth to her character and was much appreciated, particularly in a novel aimed at this age group.
“You’d really help?” Rose stared at him in amazement. “Why?”
Freddie gave a helpless sort of shrug. “I don’t know. You saved me from the elemental spirit. I’m obliged.” He frowned. “I shouldn’t be obliged to a servant, and I need to repay the debt.” His shoulders slumped a little, and he didn’t look at Rose as he went on quickly, “And you talk to me. Mostly to be rude, but no one else does at all apart from Gus. Even old Fountain hardly sees I’m here, and when I got home for tea, all my parents do is tell me to work harder. If you go off and get stolen too, I’d – I’d miss you!”
Rose glared at him. “Don’t go getting silly!” she warned him firmly.
The secondary characters in this novel range from mildly interesting to entirely forgettable. I kid you not when I tell you that I had to look up more than one character’s name as I prepared to write this review. That’s right – I had forgotten several of the characters’ names within minutes of completing the novel. This is likely due in large part to the fact that, regrettably, most of the secondary characters exist on the periphery of the narrative and come to the forefront only when it is necessary to further the plot or bolster Rose’s development, and cease to exist once they have done so. I had been hoping I would be given the opportunity to read more about the much-talked-about alchemist, Mr. Fountain, but unfortunately he was indisposed and only made a handful of appearances throughout the course of the novel, none of which were particularly memorable or interesting. That said, there are a handful of characters who are not without their own unique set of charms, most notable of which is Gustavus, the talking cat. The idea itself is very cute and was well-executed. Gus added some much-needed levity to what was otherwise often a sombre story. It was also a welcome relief to encounter a character who was entirely in control of and comfortable with their magical powers, as both Rose and Freddie spend the majority of this novel only beginning to grow comfortable with their own. Speaking of which, Freddie is another character who experiences of modicum of development over the course of the novel. While he begins as a proud, arrogant apprentice of Mr. Fountain’s who has little time for the other members of the household, Freddie soon develops a grudging respect for Rose and her abilities and encourages her to strengthen them in a more substantial way. The relationship between Rose and Freddie was very sweet. Both characters were quite lonely and found comfort in one another, although at this stage of the series the relationship does not develop past an unlikely friendship. Most surprisingly of all, however, is the character of Isabella. The daughter of Mr. Fountain, Isabella is initially introduced as a spoiled, self-interested hellion who seems to derive little pleasure apart from that she receives when tormenting others. As the novel progresses, however, the reader learns of the impetus behind Isabella’s less-than-desirable behaviour. As a result, she becomes a far more fascinating, although not necessarily sympathetic, character who enlivened every scene she was in. It was nice to see that Webb allowed Isabella to transcend the typical ‘mean girl’ archetype and develop beyond it into a more well-rounded character.
“Oh, what was she going to do about this stupid magic? The pictures had been bad enough, but at least they hadn’t been discovered. The treacle could have been a disaster. What if the angry gentlemen had managed to grab her and haul her back to the house, demanding an explanation? She would have been sent straight back to the orphanage.
She simply had to get rid of it, take it out of herself somehow. Surely she could do that if she didn’t want it anymore? She could hide it in a box under her bed, perhaps.”
Parents of middle-grade-age children should be made aware that there are certain scenes in this novel which some readers might find upsetting. There are allusions to both the bloodletting and prolonged suffering of the children who have been kidnapped. While none of these scenes are described in explicit detail, the explanation of why these children have been taken and what has been done to them in the interim might be too much for certain younger readers to bear. Putting this aside, the novel does impart a number of valuable lessons about prejudice, friendship, and the importance of teamwork. Prejudice against magic and those who practice it abound in the society that Webb has created. Rose’s concerns about rejection and isolation should her abilities ever become public knowledge hold the potential to inspire an important dialogue about prejudice and its roots in ignorance and fear of the unknown. Magic is portrayed as something which only the social elite can practice and little is known by the general public as to the exact scope of said abilities. This means that even those employed in the home of a famed alchemist are resistant, and even openly hostile, to those who practice it. In using her abilities to save the kidnapped children, Rose demonstrates that her abilities are a gift rather than a curse, and that a lack of understanding or familiarity with something does not necessarily make it ‘wrong’ or ‘evil. In the process, Rose is also forced to band together with a rather unlikely group of allies in order to accomplish her mission, and in doing so demonstrates the importance of teamwork and that true friendship can often be found in the unlikeliest of places.
“Rose hit it. She had fought other girls a few times at the orphanage – not many, for she was one of the quiet ones – and she was well able to take care of herself. No smoke was going to bite her and get away with it. Besides, she could feel its nastiness trying to seep into her skin with the bites. She wasn’t having that. She only had half an hour, and then she had to be serving tea.”
Admirable though these messages undoubtedly are, I found that the impact of Rose’s narrative was often regrettably lessened due to the terribly inconsistent pacing of the novel itself. Despite being only 240 pages in length, Rose took me well over a week to finish, and I believe this was due in large part to the positively glacial pacing during the earliest portions of the novel. The first 50% of the story centers upon Rose settling into the Fountain household and becoming more accustomed to her duties and her magical abilities. Unfortunately, the banalities of domestic servitude do not make for the most scintillating reading and it was frustrating to watch Rose deny her magical abilities for as long as she did. Once they are established, the novel then progresses at the speed of light, picking up the previously only vaguely-alluded-to storyline involving a string of local kidnappings, which Rose only becomes interested in solving once she learns that one of her close friends at the orphanage has been taken. This inconsistency in terms of pacing hindered my overall enjoyment of the novel and made the act of reading it seem like a far more laborious process than it should have been. This was a shame as I saw undeniable potential in Rose, not only in the story itself but also in the manner in which it was told. Webb’s narrative style is whip-smart and features a wry, laconic wit that I really enjoyed. Rose’s asides to the reader and internal monologue were endlessly entertaining and had me laughing aloud on more than one occasion.
“Rose clicked the door shut and leaned against it for a second. That hadn’t been what she planned to happen, not at all. But at least she knew it wasn’t magic that was making all these strange things keep happening to her. Magic was messy and difficult and not her place to know. She was having nothing to do with it.
So how do you make pictures on bathtubs? a little voice demanded in her head. And pour treacle on men on big horses? And why can’t Bill and the others hear the cat? But Rose was very carefully not listening. It was too nice, knowing that she was normal after all. She didn’t want anything to spoil it.”
Poor, inconsistent pacing, forgettable, lacklustre secondary characters, and a troubling inability to form a deeper emotional connection with this story all coalesced to create a rather disappointing reading experience. That said, while there were a number of problematic elements that prevented me from enjoying this novel as much as I would have liked and I have little interest in continuing on with this series, Holly Webb’s Rose is not without its own unique set of charms. With a smart, spunky heroine and an odd assortment of mysterious magic elements like mist monsters and talking cats, I can certainly understand why this novel might appeal to prospective middle grade readers. I would happily recommend Rose to those searching for a delightful combination of mystery and magic, although I would be cautious about some of the darker, more violent undertones, which might prove upsetting for certain readers.
Still not sure this is the right book for you? Why not listen to what some other bloggers had to say about it?
● Erica @ The Book Cellar wrote “What an absolute little gem of a book! Rose by Holly Webb is a darling blend of magic, dreams, and a mystery that gets even lovelier with mixing in the fantastical. “ (Read the rest of the review Here!)