By Frances Hardinge
On shelves May 27th
By and large I’ve been attempting to review things as they come out. Then I made the mistake of picking up Well Witched and my little vow goes higglety pigglety out the window. Sorry guys. Ignore this review until May if you prefer.
I’ve been around the block when it comes to loving first time authors, if you know what I mean. That pretty little debut novel comes out and suddenly you can’t stop talking about it. You proselytize “your” find to the high hills in an attempt to convince the world around you that what you have here is pure unadulterated gold. Then the author’s second book comes out and inevitably the crush fades. You notice flaws in the new book. It could never live up to the pristine glory that was the author’s first title, so you swallow your disappointment and move on with your life. Now in 2006 there was a little novel by the name of Fly by Night that came from first-time writer Frances Hardinge. People who know me know that I was head over heels for that title. And when I received her second book to be published in America, Well Witched I knew that I was either going to see lightning strike twice or be deeply disappointed. And what I found made me reevaluate my take on Hardinge’s writing, but in a good way. A very different beastie from her first outing, Well Witched has a slow start but once the action starts hopping it becomes a heady examination of power, wishes, and whether or not it’s fair to label something evil if it’s merely misunderstood or out of place.
Well what would you have done? Here they were, stranded in a small village that they were NOT supposed to be visiting in the first place, and Ryan, Josh, and Chelle had just missed the cheap bus out. Now they’d have to scrounge up some money for the heftier fare, and where on earth were they supposed to do that? Really, when you think of it, it was only logical rob the wishing well. Right? I mean, it’s not like it was going to miss the dough. But then, soon after, strange things start happening to the three kids. Josh seems to affect everything around him electrically. Chelle starts speaking the thoughts of certain people she’s near. And Ryan’s got these warts on his hands. Innocent at first and then… less so. It soon becomes clear that the three are under the thrall of the spirit that lives deep inside the well and they have a job to do. For each coin they took they must make that coin’s wish come true. At first it’s fun stuff like getting someone a motorcycle or helping them fall in love. Soon, though, it becomes clear that even if the wishes are death and dismemberment, they must help the wishers achieve their desires. And when one of the three starts taking the job a little too seriously, there are consequences involved that none of them could foresee.
At first, you’re not sure why you’re getting everything from the point of view of Ryan. It’s like reading a Harry Potter book and finding that you’re inside the brain of Ron the entire time. Ryan is Josh’s right-hand man. He’s not particularly brilliant or funny. He’s just a normal guy and it’s JOSH that’s the star of the show. As the story continues, however, it becomes clear that Ryan has a streak of good old-fashioned decency that will get him through this experience with a lot less damange than Josh.
I admit to you right now that when I began reading the book I was disappointed by the plodding pace. Maybe “plodding” is too strong a term. Let’s call it “purposeful” then. It takes a while to get going. I liked learning about Ryan’s family and that kind of stuff, but the other two main characters didn’t gel for me. Even the powers the three receive were okay, but I didn’t really get into them. It wasn’t until the characters started to get proactive, going out there, finding wishers, and making wishes come true that the pace picked up. And when the villains of the piece started showing their true colors and the morality of what they were doing was called into question, then I found I couldn’t put it down. The story’s basically a roller coaster ride. If you can sit through the slow trip upwards, the downhill plunge is worth your hard earned cash.
Technically it’s a fantasy novel but you might also be able to call it a horror. There elements in this book that screenwriters would kill to rip-off if they knew about them. I mean, what would happen if you opened your eyes in front of the mirror and found that your reflection had kept its own closed? And what’s more, when those eyelids DID open, what if they released gushing torrents of murky water? Consider too the warts on Ryan’s hands. I don’t want to give anything away, but imagine waking up in the middle of the night, looking at your hands, and seeing lines of hairs running through the center of each wart. I’d have nightmares about that, if my brain was smart enough to think it up on its own. Mind you, I don’t think that these elements make the book inappropriate for children. Just bear in mind that there are psychological elements that play on our fears rather than our fantasies in this story.
Hardinge is the queen of the description. Nobody matches her in this respect. Nobody. Listen to some of these lines as they appear throughout the story:
“Chelle was biting her lower lip, her upper lip pulling down to a point, like a little soft beak.”
“I hate scars and things, they make my stomach feel like it’s unpeeling…”
“. . . and it’s tricky because she always makes me feel like, well, you know what it’s like, when somebody’s watching you and you can feel it like dead leaves down the back of your sweater. . . “
“She had big, vague eyes and a big, vague smile, and was always very busy in the way that a moth crashing about in a lampshade is busy.”
“There was a pause while his brain hopped back and actually heard what Ryan had said.”
“… this was different, and this was hate. This had brewed itself to a blackness like ink.”
Regarding shopping carts: “Ryan had always thought that carts had far too much body language for objects with no heads or limbs.”
Harding is also able to point out things about a person that we recognize without having thought of them before. Like when you pray to God in such a way that you hope that God would be impressed by your bravery. She gets people and the little crazy things that make us human. It makes her inhuman water spirit all the more frightening when you couple that kind of pitiless sense of black and white against humans and their charming flaws. The spirit doesn’t care if people make bad wishes or want to take them back later. All she cares about is granting them. I like books where human characters encounter someone alien and you feel that distance and that strangeness.
The redemption of Chelle is one of the finest things about this book. In fact, when you think about it, the whole novel is about redemption. Nobody in this story is really “evil” even though incredibly evil things occur or almost occur. And I was as gung-ho to see the bad guy get it as anyone, but Hardinge doesn’t play by those rules. This isn’t a book that’s going to merrily kill a character for sport. Death is a desperate dangerous thing, and everyone in this book knows it.
There are things that don’t make sense, a slow start, and some lines that don’t work with the rest of the text, but on the whole Hardinge’s book is captivating reading. The central idea is that when we wish, we aren’t wishing for what we really want. We’re wishing for the outer shiny layer, not the nut of the wish. Hardinge prefers nuts, and by the end of this book you will too. A scintillating tale worth discovering.
On shelves May 27th.
First Line: “For a wonderful moment Ryan thought Josh was going to make it.”
Notes on the Title: This book was originally released in Britain under the title Verdigris Green. There was some concern, however, that American kids (and, undoubtedly, their parents) would have a hard time pronouncing that “verdigris” and so Ms. Hardinge had another title waiting in the wings. Well Witched isn’t a bad name. It sounds like an Eva Ibbotson or Diana Wynne Jones manuscript. I don’t think it would have been my first choice, but it’s not as if I could have come up with better.
Other Blog Reviews: Valentina’s Room, and Readers’ Rants
Web Reviews: The Times Online, Strange Horizons, and The Bookbag