Verdigris Deep by Frances Hardinge

I first fell in love with Frances Hardinge’s Fly By Night more than five years ago, a pleasurable read enhanced by the fact that the good friend who recommended it to me knew my reading tastes so well. I’m not as well-versed in Young Adult fiction as I should probably be, but I connected with the airiness of Hardinge’s prose, which painted a vibrant world teeming with humor and verve.

It’s through this lens of great expectation that I viewed Verdigris Deep, her sophomore novel. A young adult urban fantasy set in contemporary London, it trades the sense of wonderment for something more brooding and unsettling, a stylistic choice that made me more disappointed than I probably would have had I picked up the book cold.

The story details the exploit of three friends named Ryan Chelle, and Josh, who run into trouble on a fateful night when they decide to steal a few coins from a wishing well. Unbeknownst to them, the well is inhabited by a spirit that ends up cursing them. Their newfound “gifts”–telepathy, manipulation of electricity, and the ability to see London’s literal underworld–are tools that are supposed to help them grant other people’s wishes. But as with every fairy tale, thingsn are rarely what they seem.

Although the book is framed as the adventure of three characters, the action is presented solely through Ryan’s eyes. He’s much more thoughtful and reticent than his friends, and he idolizes Josh so much that he agrees to the initial mischief that causes them all of their troubles. I actually assumed that Josh was the protagonist at first, and was increasingly frustrated by his flippant meanness and recklessness.

The fact that Ryan is so passive in the beginning, coupled with his unquestioning admiration of Josh, also hampered my ability to sympathize with him. He just seems so removed from his own motivations that it was frustrating to read the three of them go through various adventures that essentially make things more catastrophic for themselves. Ryan, however, is saved in my estimation by a very involving sequence at the end of the book. During the final conflict with a surprising adversary, in he manages to assert himself and fully grasp the extent of his own inner strength.

Several elements stand out individually. Chelle’s characterization has elements of poignancy that I didn’t quite expect when she was first introduced. I pegged her as the comic effect early on, but her character growth dovetails nicely with Ryan’s. On the writing front, the plotting for their wish-granting expeditions that turn horribly awry is taut with tension and a great deal of irony. The story also inevitably imparts a nuanced statement about evaluating friends and their impact on one’s well-being.

Ultimately, this book ended up being not my thing. But people who enjoy a darker edge to their children’s fiction will find a cleverly told tale in Verdigris Deep. At the very least, it will warn would-be thieves not to dip their fingers into the bottom of wishing wells.

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