October 26, 2012 by Heidi
Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Angie at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time!
Title: Well Witched (US) or Verdigris Deep (UK) [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: Frances Hardinge [Website|Twitter]
Standing: Stand alone novel.
Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Speculative Fiction, Horror
Published: May 27th, 2008 by HarperCollins
Format: Hardcover; 390 pages.
Source: Borrowed from my local library.
Making a wish is like saying, ‘I can’t deal with anything, I give up, somebody bigger come along and solve it all instead.’
Ryan, Josh, and Chelle miss their last bus home when hanging out in Magwhite, the village they only frequent because it is forbidden by their parents. They’ll do just about anything to make it home without having to call anyone, even if it means wrangling up some extra change to buy tickets for another bus line. Short on money and options, Josh descends into the local wishing well and crawls back out carrying enough change to pay their way home. Soon the kids learn they’ve done anything but take the easy way out as each of them begins to take on some unsettling powers. Unsure if they’re radioactive, crazy, or just plain unlucky, they realize that they didn’t just take change from the well, they took people’s wishes, and those wishes need granting.
My initial notes for Well Witched state how whimsical and jaunty it feels–how different from Gullstruck Island. And then this happened:
That’s when I remembered that behind the veneer of charming metaphors and the unexpected personification of shopping carts lies Frances Hardinge’s ability to dig under your skin and inject you with emotions you never anticipated when picking up this book. I’ve read Frances Hardinge before, and she still manages to blindside me–and yes, creep me out just a bit. I feel I was lulled into complacency by the cutesy US title ‘Well Witched‘ when the slightly ominous and mysterious ‘Verdigris Deep‘ suits the story much better. I suppose the publishers thought young American children wouldn’t pick up a book containing a word in the title they had little to no chance of knowing, but I like to think that young readers are attracted to the challenge of the unknown. I, for one, will now never forget that the term ‘verdigris’ applies to that bluish tarnish that will appear on copper, brass, or bronze after a period of time. Like the Statue of Liberty, or, like coins down a wishing well.
Well Witched is, at its core, a story of human nature. I was astounded as I read, realizing just how well Frances Hardinge understands people. Who they are, what they want, what they really want under all of that wanting…And, of course, it is a story of wishes. I don’t think it’s outrageous to assume we’ve all heard the expression ‘Be careful what you wish for.’, and that we also could all recount a handful of tales demonstrating the truth of those words. Well Witched, however, isn’t the story of wishers, it’s the story of those who make them come true.
There is Chelle, helpless, cowardly, and lacking the ability to stay quiet. She looks to her two friends for everything, including permission to form whatever thoughts and opinions will be approved of. There is Josh, who was their salvation. He is a year older, with a humor and fearlessness that would leave him in charge of any situation with all those around him seeking his approval. And then, there is Ryan. Ryan who has always seen the world in an “upside-down” sort of manner, and seeks to see things in as many different ways as possible so as to never be taken by surprise. Chelle wants to be helpful and needed, Josh wants to be in control, and Ryan mostly just wants to understand.
Well Witched is told in the third person over the shoulder perspective, entirely from Ryan’s point of view. Through him we see the chilling horror of lines blurring between nightmare and reality, and the desperation to hold onto what you care about. Even when holding on means changing so much of who you let yourself be, growing, and seeing the reality in others. I love that nobody really changes throughout the course of Well Witched, they only become more on the outside who they were on the inside–or maybe we’re slowly infected with Ryan’s upside-down way of viewing the world and can begin to see everyone differently. We realize that parents are just people too, and that our heroes are only human, and that it can be very confusing trying to determine what a person really wants when they make a simple wish.
Well Witched was a harrowing adventure story, but it is the underlying feeling it gave me that I will remember long after I’ve returned the book to its shelf. It focuses on friendship, child-parent relationships, and the darker side of people in ways that are rarely examined in Middle Grade literature. It is fun, fantastical, and unexpectedly chilling.
Frances Hardinge has a way of hooking together words from the English language that makes me feel as if everyone else has been doing it wrong. Quite frankly, I couldn’t recommend her books more.
Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:
Absolutely! I plan to read all of Hardinge’s books and can safely list her as an autobuy author for any future works.
This book (and Frances Hardinge in general) is perfect for fans of Harry Potter, Diana Wynne Jones, and Cat Valente’s Fairyland books. However, I will note that her material can be fairly dark and heavy, bear that in mind before picking this up.
Get a second opinion:
Random Musings of a Bibliophile – “It took me three days to finish (odd for me with a book like this) because I was haunted by a feeling of disquiet the whole time I was reading. Which is a testament to the talent in the writing, but it was so intense at times I didn’t want to continue. ”
The Booksmugglers – “So basically, what I am saying is: Frances Hardinge is right now, my favourite writer. Let her career be a long and prosperous one.”
I’ve also reviewed:
The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge