Kate's Reviews > Well Witched

Well Witched by Frances Hardinge
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Wow. The most ambitious children's book I have read in a while, and the most successful at meeting those ambitions. Hardinge skillfully blends a sense of creeping supernatural menace with astute psychological realism that makes the fantastical elements more grounded and thereby more plausible and frightening. The scariest part of the book is seeing the effect on Josh of his new supernatural abilities; when combined with an underlying resentment at being neglected by his adoptive parents, his growing powers exacerbate the worst aspects of his personality. Hardinge never talks down to her audience, setting up circumstances that allow Ryan to realize some profound truths about the sources of human discontent and the danger of hero worship without any hint of didacticism. The plotting is superb; I was impressed by the way that disparate strands came together fluidly, with the pace never flagging. I had a few nitpicks with the speed at which the flooding became dangerous at the end, and the final scene with the well witch moved too quickly for me to buy her transformation, but overall, the connections between the wishers felt satisfying rather than overly coincidental. (I did wonder about Josh's aunts in Merrybells -- I thought that they would end up playing a role a la Miss Gossamer, and was confused by their presence in the book and their effect on Josh without some kind of connection to the well witch.) An author who deals beautifully with character, plot, and theme is rare enough, but Hardinge is also just a gorgeous writer. Hardinge's characters may be thinking things you have thought before, but she states those thoughts with such grace, power, and clarity that you envy their insight and perspective. And even minor descriptions are worthy of great sentences and metaphors. For example, I loved this description of Chelle's mom: "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" (29). Other sentences that are jumping out at me as I page through: "Josh gave a grin as hard as glass" (384), "The bus's engine gave a long, exasperated sigh and shrugged its weight forward, as if hulking its shoulders against the rain" (1), "She had an air of kitten-tottering helplessness, and the pallor of her hair and skin made her look as if she had been through the wash too many times, losing her color and courage in the rinse" (6). You can tell I like metaphors! Looking back now, the metaphor of a wish as a conker shell is made right in the first chapter; that image returns later on when Ryan realizes how wishes have outer shells and inner nuts of truth. Yes another reason for me to admire Hadinge's writing and the thoughtful construction of the novel as a whole. It's always exciting to find an author into whose oeuvre you cannot wait to dive!
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