Well Witched (US) or Verdigris Deep (UK)
by Frances Hardinge
HarperCollins Children's Books, 2007 (US)
Macmillan Children's Books, 2007 (UK)
Well Witched is a children's fantasy/horror chapter book by the author that gave us the Fly By Night series. It is perhaps reminiscent of The Three Investigators or the works of John Bellairs, although I fear that I may be making those comparisons primarily because I am so poorly read in this area that I have nothing else to compare it to.
Ryan, Josh, and Chelle are exploring an unsavory part of town one afternoon and accidently miss their bus transfer. They don't have the money for a full fare, and they are really not supposed to be in this part of town, so they aren't going to call their parents. After mucking around for a bit, they come up with a potential solution -- they'll steal some coins from the ancient wishing well.
It doesn't take long before strange things start to happen -- bad dreams, electronics going haywire, and odd warts that look like eyes growing on Ryan's knuckles. They slowly deduce that the well spirit has deputized them to grant the wishes attached to the coins that they took, and is giving them some rather uncomfortable magical powers to help them with this.
The process of discovering and granting wishes is actually kind of fun -- and fun to read about -- but it quickly becomes apparent that the well witch does not care who she hurts, and might actually prefer that wishes hurt the people who made them. And then they learn what happened to the last people who stole from the well...
I was somewhat surprised by the dark tone of this book. The book jacket blurbs promised that it was hilarious, exuberant, reminiscent of Monty Python... I don't see it. It is a good book, and quite fun at parts, but it also involves death and madness and evil spirits, and a dose of teen angst to wash it down. I was also slightly put off by the writing style, which appears to be the third-grade-teacher approved writing code; extra adjectives wherever possible, said bookisms, and purple prose placed intermediately.
On the plus side, this is a very well-thought-out story, with lots and lots of character development across a surprising large cast of characters. It also does spooky very well, bouncing into and out of nightmarish scenes quite naturally. And, yes, there are some funny bits, although they mostly arise from overblown characters, which is generally the norm in children's fantasy.
Overall, a book well worth reading if you are in the general range of 9-16 and enjoy ghosts and the like. I imagine that there are better scary stories out there, but I don't generally read them, and this book is certainly good enough to be getting on with.
AR reading level: 6.2