First, let's start with world-building, which is where Durham really just stands heads above pretty much every middle-grade fantasy I've read the last couple of years. Every scene, I felt, was crystal clear in my mind, having been drawn with a fine hand and an attention to those little details that make all the difference. I could smell the smells at the Dead Fish Inn, I could hear the frightening babyish wailing of the featured monster in this story, I could feel the warmth and see the light of the fire flickering in Rye's cozy home. I want to visit the Village Drowning. It had the feel of Hogsmeade from Harry Potter, which I think is one of the crown jewels in Rowling's series.
Next, I will move on to characters: Durham slowly builds each one of them with again, stunning use of imagery, inner dialogue, and history and facial expression, so much so that Riley (the MC) has completely enraptured me, and her mother, her friends, and her experiences with all the other colorful characters in her world feel like they are my own. I adored the quiet dignity and strength of her mother, the careless but imaginative stunts of her friend Folly, the inquisitiveness and loyalty of her friend Quinn. I even loved her cat, Shady, wanting to pet him myself--and I am not a cat person!
Finally, plot: This is a story that is well-built, has layer upon layer, which, in my opinion, always always always adds to the richness of a fantasy story; more than any other genre, I feel, fantasy desperately needs finely detailed backstory, and this has got it, drawing the reader in further and further. I predicted only a few plot lines; the others were either wholly unexpected or just took me along for the ride. This was the PERFECT book to lose myself in for a couple of days. I just didn't want it to end.
PLEASE read this book. If you love fantasy, you will NOT regret it.