This one did not disappoint. Apparently the British title was Verdigris Deep, which I prefer, because 'witch' is not the correct word for the thing that Ryan, Chelle, and Josh encounter. They're in a situation that happened to me far too frequently as a child-- namely, they're in a part of town they're not supposed to be anywhere near, and they've missed a bus and are out of cash-- and they take some coins from the bottom of a well for fare home. What lives there isn't very happy about that. It's a wishing well, and taking the coins means taking on the responsibility of granting the wishes. Each of them gets some degree of power to assist in paying off that debt, but of course wishes are never, ever a simple thing to deal with, or an easy one.
Hardinge is both writing a very good YA horror novel here, one which is genuinely profoundly creepy, and I say this as a person who is not easily creeped out, and also gleefully jumping up and down on the tropes of a certain kind of kid's book. Most writers would play this as social comedy, with the kids having to get themselves into all kinds of awkward situations granting wishes, and in fact Diana Wynne Jones did (Wilkin's Tooth/Witch's Business, early DWJ and inconsequential but not terrible). But if there's a Diana Wynne Jones this should really be compared to, it's The Time of the Ghost; the books share a knack at depicting messy and awkward relationships and distinctly unique and threatening inchoate evil powers. Everyone in the Hardinge would love this to be a social comedy. However, it isn't, even if some of the characters want to try to play it that way, and Ryan, the protagonist, knows that from day one: we get his perspective because he sees the most clearly what's going on, not that that's difficult to do after you grow a few subsidiary eyes.
The motor of this book is the characters, who are all three-dimensional, even the adults the kids initially discount in that kids'-book-adults-aren't-important way. (And it bites everyone in the ass that that happens.) At its heart, this novel is working with complex issues about desire and choice and the fact that it's possible for relationships to be terribly unhealthy even when you're too young to be able to notice and analyze what's wrong, and it is very clear on the sheer amount of total mental overthrow it can take to produce the faintest smidgeon of hope that things might get better. It never stops moving as a story, it never becomes a book I wouldn't have gotten at the protagonist's age (eleven), it has some extremely impressive imagery, and it refuses to cheat in either overly optimistic or overly pessimistic directions.
And it never stops shredding those tropes. How much do I love a book in which a) the protagonist remembers to go to the library to try to discover what to do about The Problem, only to b) find that the copious information available boils down to 'things are actually even more fucked than you had remotely imagined possible, and no one previously has come up with a solution'? Nobody does that! It was great.
I'm looking forward to the rest of Frances Hardinge very much.
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