Mistress of the Storm by M. L. Welsh is probably a middle grade book. It would be too difficult for a very young child to follow. But I think it would be difficult for anyone of any age to follow. I was 100 pages or more into the book and I still had no idea where it was going. It is written with eccentric grammatical ticks that are deliberate but wrong—a kind of misguided style. When the protagonist, Verity, is reading from a book, the text is italicized and indented—and then at the end of the first sentence, brackets enclose an aside such as [she read, in an early chapter] or [Verity read]. Odd and jarring.
The story is repeatedly telegraphed in advance. We are told at every opportunity that this or that object or incident will not bode well for our pudgy, bullied, not-as-pretty-as-her-blonde-sister heroine. Verity is actually relentlessly tormented, alternately ignored or dressed in ugly, funny clothes by her family, insulted by astonishingly vicious kids and callous grown-ups alike. Naturally, she has a few adult, non-family friends who take their sweet time about helping her. An equally outcast boy becomes her champion. There is the arrival of a mysterious ship in the harbor, the deliverance of a strange wooden talisman and an ancient red book, the revelation of scraps of some secret about smugglers and shipwreckers, a hideous fake grandmother who shows up out of nowhere and ejects Verity from her attic bedroom, one device that summons squalls and another that calms them. And all the while, no unambiguous clue to what the point of all this is.
All the information in the book is told—including Verity’s unspoken thoughts about caustic remarks or unhappy occurrences. There is a lot of plot but it’s like a scrambled puzzle—all in pieces that are presumed to make a coherent picture but are just jammed together in the end. Mistress of the Storm is magic but it’s very sloppy magic. A fantasy for children should be as carefully crafted, as beautifully written as any good story. This one is just a blatant mess, crammed with improbabilities and presumptions and some really, really thin characters and caricatures who pop in and out in a perfectly irritating way until the requisite blow-up at the conclusion. As the fate of a few of the actors isn’t entirely clear, I suspect there will be a sequel to this lumpy porridge. I won’t be reading it.
Mistress of the Storm M. L. Welsh | David Fickling Books 2010