Two sinister spinsters spirit a seemingly ordinary fifth-grader away one day to a moldering former asylum, informing her that she's become an orphan and they are her great-aunts. Yeah, right.
"Now sit up straight and eat your Lumps." Locked into her room at night by "Aunts" Primrose and Prudence and fed only Mystery Lumps, Anastasia nearly succumbs to misery at first. But like her capable literary heroine, detective/veterinarian/artist Francie Dewdrop, she's made of sterner stuff—and is soon turning up startling clues, terrifying discoveries and, in the asylum's darker reaches, other young captives with decidedly peculiar abilities. Along with drawing most of her characters from Roald Dahl's casting company and concocting an eerie setting positively made for Unfortunate Events, Grant threads her narrative with direct addresses to Readers and delicious turns of phrase: "A pink-patterned carpet runner spooled down the steps like a monstrous spotty tongue." Not to mention multiple atmosphere-lightening references to Anastasia's "tragic flatulence" and the odd wade into the nearby bog to gather leeches for, ugh, nonmedicinal purposes. Anastasia herself displays a few quirks, such as a sudden appetite for moths. Despite revelations following a rescue by a pair of shape-changing allies, the author leaves at least one sequel's worth of unexplained puzzles. Portillo's frequent vignettes add a properly cobwebby Gothic look.
A yummy debut, though readers with sensitive stomachs would be well-advised to check them at the door. (Fantasy. 10-12)