"We always find it difficult to forgive our heroes for being human."
This is one of the best books I've read this year, despite it being a children's book. Here, I said it. It has that amazing level of complexity and ambiguity, the brave tackling of difficult questions - friendship, loyalty, and the grey undertones of both right and wrong - that so many adult books lack.
And it does not talk down to children, its intended audience. Instead it assumes - and does so correctly - that children have the mental capacity to deal with the ambiguities of life without the need for sugar-coating and simplification. In short, it's another addition to the ever-growing pile of books meant for my (future, hypothetical) daughter that I will be proud to give to her as a (future, hypothetical) parent.
The hardest thing for me was to get past the silly American edition title - "Well Witched" - the title that just screams of silly unicorns and candy canes and perhaps a magical witching school somewhere. Well, from now on I'll think of this book by its original British title - 'Verdigris Deep', the title that avoids the childish cutesy (that is really not a part of this book!) and instead suggests something more sophisticated and more sinister - exactly keeping up with the tone of this book.
Whoever those people are who decide to change the titles of books for American public, mostly succeeding in making them sound dumber or sillier or needlessly more sensational - those people need to be fired pronto, with Donald Trump-like stone cold 'You're fired!' phrase chasing them out of the door. Idiots.
Frances Hardinge just may become my favorite children's book author if she keeps writing like this, with lovely phrases and apt descriptions, and dialogue that feels alive, and complex characters that become more and more three-dimensional as the story progresses, and her ability to cultivate and maintain suspense, and her ability to make even the adult readers gasp and choke up a bit, and have that funny feeling deep in their chests that makes them wistfully look back at their childhoods. Her ability to make her young characters come to life reminds me of Pratchett and Gaiman and King - and for those who know me, that's saying something, indeed.
This story is about a trio of children who get caught in the web - or a well - of events they could not really anticipate. Having taken a few coins from an old wishing well - just to get enough for a bus fare, they suddenly find themselves way over their heads when they are not only forced to become wish-granters but have to endure their friendship bonds straining, their families fall apart, and innocent-seeming game turn into a true life-or-death scenario - all while seeing their childhood ideas crumble and their hero thrown off their pedestal.
Ryan is an 11-year-old boy who skipped a grade because of his cleverness, worried about school and bullies, and seeing things a bit differently from others - a bit upside-down.
"It had shown him that if you looked at things from a new angle, they could suddenly become unfamiliar and scary. It became important to see things in so many different ways as possible, so they couldn't catch you by surprise."
Chelle is a 12-year-old timid asthmatic girl who can never stop talking despite nobody ever really listening to her, striving for some approval and understanding but always failing at it; a bland 'coleslaw' to her more colorful friends.
"Poor Chelle, always waiting to find out what she was allowed to think or feel. No wonder she had been so quiet when Ryan and Josh were arguing."
And finally, Josh is a 13-year-old troublemaker adopted into a rich but cold family, who has taken the two misfits above under his wing and seems to understand Ryan's way of viewing the world upside-down; Josh to whom nothing ever seems impossible, who has an inexplicable way of always getting things to go his way; who always needs to be a center of attention and who can get a bit scary when he feels guilty or out of control.
"Josh was a firework and you never quite knew which way he was going to explode."
It is Josh who initially seems to be at the heart of this story, whose carelessness gets the friends in trouble, who goes down the wishing well to grab an ill-fated fistful of coins, who is the only one to initially take the strange happenings in stride and infuse them with his trademark brand of carefree energy. And it's also Josh who, because of all this, appears to be particularly susceptible to the power of the strange happenings, and who makes a journey from being the indisputable hero of Ryan and Chele's lives to... well, you just need to read on to find out.
"Josh had not understood that every wish came in two parts, including a secret part of which even the wisher was often unaware."
Together - and apart - these kids go through losing some of their innocence, and not in the way they ever expected. They learn the perils of power, and pain of revenge, and mystery of family ties, and the multi-layered nature of wishes which can hide many unexpected dangers. Including the dangers of wanting something so much that it takes over you completely.
"Josh, nobody's child, nobody's Chosen One, and now nobody's hero. The nurses bustling through the ward have no idea that a god had given up her power just to give him a chance at happiness. Right now, even that chance seemed pretty slender."
This is one of those books that can stir up some deep unexpected feelings when you get through it, the feelings that are greyer and murkier than you'd expect to be brought up by a middle-grade book.
"I think I hated him for a bit," he said after a moment. "Just for, you know, not being everything I wanted him to be. But... even with all the bad stuff, he was still my friend. And if your friend's drowning, even if he's *trying* to drown and struggling to shake your hand off his sleeve, you don't let go, do you?"
Easy five stars for this book, along with yet another wave of frustration at ridiculous publishing decision to hide the awesomeness of this story behind a silly title that is bound to turn away quite a few potential readers, robbing them of the experience Verdigris Deep can be. Frances Hardinge, I plan to read the rest of your books, just hoping that they will be just as good as the two I've read so far.
"As he read them out one by one, he imagined his words drifting down through the brown water into the green water, to where a gold-robed god sat by a silver fire in her lonely hall, handling a pair of yellow-tinted sunglasses as gently as if they were a living thing."