Retro Friday Review: Well Witched/Verdigris Deep by Frances Hardinge


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!

Well Witched by Frances Hardinge US book coverVerdigris Deep by Frances Hardinge UK book cover

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:

Doctor Who Waters of Mars

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.

Recommended for:  
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


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  1. “I was astounded as I read, realizing just how well Frances Hardinge understands people.”

    I’ve only read Fly By Night so far, but from that alone I know exactly what you mean by this. And this is exactly why her writing reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s, unlikely as the comparison is. I need to get my hands on this book. And on pretty much everything she’s written.

    • Heidi says:

      You do! As do I–I still have 3 more of hers left to read! I actually hadn’t thought to compare her with Terry Pratchett, but I see what you mean. I think that it’s easy to forget about the depth of his writing underneath the quirk sometimes. Continually impressed by Hardinge, though, I can’t wait to read more.

  2. Brandy says:

    Excellent. You put into words all of the reasons Hardinge is an amazing writer no matter what she is writing about. Her books are always layered and a bit uncomfortable to read. That’s why I have to be in a certain sort of mood to read them, but I’m always glad when I do.

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Brandy. I totally understand needing to be in a certain mood in order to read her books, I feel the same. They’re not light and fun and easy, even though they might appear that way at first. So worth it though.

  3. Oh man…this sounds so amazing and I just want to read it right now. The other two books of hers that I’ve read have hit me in exactly the same way. They always seem so…cute and whimsical to begin with but then she BRINGS THE DEPTH.

    Do I get to gloat just a little bit for being the person to hand you your first Frances Hardinge? Do I? A little? 😀

    • Heidi says:

      It is amazing, Catie! You can totally gloat! Because I am totally in love with Hardinge as an author. I want to read ALL THE BOOKS, and you totally get credit for handing me my first. 😛

  4. Gosh, Frances Hardinge wrote these too? She writes SO much! I really need to check out her novels though – I really feel as if I’m missing out! I love that, despite writing middle grade, she manages to provide so much depth to her novels. Often times, I disregard middle grade simply because so many authors leave out the depth and the novel is all mere fun, which isn’t bad, but I’m usually looking for MORE. I’ll definitely have to add these to my TBR, Heidi! :)

    • Heidi says:

      Yes, her novels have an amazing amount of depth that will really affect readers no matter what age they are. You should really check out some of her work, everything I’ve read so far has been amazing, and I’ve heard the same about the others. I love her books as they’re mostly stand alones (one duology), and really the finest example of good Middle Grade lit.

  5. I am so ready to try this author out – you wouldn’t even believe (okay, yeah you would…).

    Anyway – this one, out of all of her books, appeals to me the most synopsis wise, so I’m hoping to read it soon. And I am SO WITH YOU on the title thing – Verdigris Deep is a much better title. It is so deep and rusty and ominous. Sigh, America, why do you mess with us so?

    • Heidi says:

      Hehe, I would believe it, Allison!

      I got really excited at Books of Wonder last week when I saw that they carry the UK copies of her books–so I can get a copy of Verdigris Deep as Verdigris Deep instead of Well Witched!

      I really hope you do try out some of her work. This one’s the only of her books so far that isn’t high fantasy, and it’s absolutely lovely.

  6. Jasmine Rose says:

    Boom. Added to TBR. I’ve seen this one on the shelf at the library before and just looked over it, but I’ll definitely be reading it after your review.
    Also, I find that picture about 20 times more freaky than I actually found the people in The Waters of Mars. Not sure why.

    • Heidi says:

      YES! I do think this would be easy to overlook on a shelf, so I’m so glad to hear you have access to it and plan to pick it up. I really hope you love Hardinge, Jasmine. I really think you will since you’re such a MG fan.

      And yeah, that pic is totally freaky. Not gonna lie, parts of this book freaked me out much more than expected. I read it just after Girl of Nightmares, and it certainly bothered me more.

  7. […] will!  Yay for some good ol’ fashioned vamps. Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge: I read three amazing Frances Hardinge books last year which easily drove her to my favorite authors list–this is […]

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While the source for each book I review is posted within its review, please assume unless otherwise stated that books reviewed on Bunbury in the Stacks were received free from the author or publisher in exchange for an honest review.