RogerBW's Blog

Verdigris Deep, Frances Hardinge 21 May 2016

2007 young adult fantasy. Ryan, Chelle and Josh fish some coins out of the old well, to pay for a bus home. Then things get far too complicated, far too fast. US vt Well Witched.

All right, it isn't this book's fault that it isn't Fly By Night. Not every book can be; they'd all get jammed together on the F shelf. The writing is still superb, the characterisation if anything better, but there isn't quite the same feeling of a glorious romp that that book had.

This is young adult fantasy, and these days that means you have to have Children With Problems. But this isn't an Issue Book about carefully-laid-out divorce or bullying or whatnot: rather, it's mostly about the small nastinesses and embarrassments of childhood life, that most of us choose not to think about once we've got away from them.

Ryan's mother and father, it seemed, wished to discuss something, and saw no obstacle in the fact that they were standing at opposite ends of the lounge.

That's one of the great things about it, in fact: it isn't neatly parcelled out with Real-Life Issues over here and fantasy and magic over there. Everything blends together, and it's sometimes not at all obvious whether an obstacle is a mundane or a magical one. Or, indeed, whether there's any meaningful difference.

The other thing for which I love this book is the layering. I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but the general sense of what's going on, or what the story is about, shifts several times as things progress; "we need to do this" shifts into maybe not doing all the things that "this" might include, or maybe doing any of it was wrong, or…. Things are nothing like as straight-forward as they appear, and hard decisions will have to be made.

Ryan suddenly thought of the tricksters in stories who made you laugh because they did funny things you didn't dare do, and then did more wicked things that were still amusing, and then turned your stomach over by doing horrible, diabolical things that were only funny to them. It didn't mean they'd changed; it just meant they'd slid off the far end of their own scale, an end you hadn't seen before.

Pacing is perhaps a little slow at first, and I at least wasn't immediately sucked into the story. Partly this is because all three of the principals clearly have problems they've created for themselves as well problems forced on them by the world, some of which are intrinsic to being pre-teenage children, and it's sometimes hard to feel sympathetic with them; but things do take off eventually, and it's well worth the wait. And of course the language is as lovely as ever.

Every bulb in the ceiling was silently spitting gobs of faint luminescence, which fell slowly and silently as snow and winked out as they hit the floor. The slender watch on Mrs Lattimer-Stone's wrist was bleeding light like molten butter.

This is a story about redemption and honesty and friendship and principle. It reminded me of early Diana Wynne Jones, particularly The Ogre Downstairs. It doesn't quite provoke me to say "you MUST READ THIS BOOK" to total strangers the way Fly By Night did, but it's still highly recommended.

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