Frances Hardinge’s second novel, Verdigris Deep, is complex, well-wrought and unsettling. Three children, all unpopular at school, become the unwilling agents of a terrifying, ancient wishing-well sprite after they steal coins from her well. Each coin has a wish attached to it, which must be fulfilled at all costs. Ryan, our hero, is timid and clever, preferring the cold rhythms of mathematics to anything else. Chelle can’t stop talking and ‘looks as if she had been through the wash too many times, losing her colour and courage in the rinse’. And then there is Josh, brave (or stupid), whom the other two worship.
Each is given a power by the Well Witch reflecting their personality: Ryan grows eyes on the back of his hands with which he can penetrate a different layer of reality; Josh becomes able to manipulate electricity; and Chelle acts as a psychic radio, picking up the wisher’s thoughts – and transmitting them, whether she likes it or not, in her own voice.
Hardinge is a mesmerising writer. She is as comfortable with the bizarre as she is with the ordinary: shopping trolleys stalk the children; posters move and talk. Her description of the Well Witch sitting enthroned whilst ‘a hundred cigarette butts smoked gently like incense sticks in a church shrine’ and ‘A bent bicycle wheel spun slowly and unevenly behind her head, a halo for a strange saint’ conjures up a Spenserian monster.
Initially the three friends carry out simple wishes – for a Harley Davidson, or a boyfriend. But then Chelle picks up a killer’s thoughts, Josh becomes crazed with power, and Ryan discovers the story of three men who, also entrapped by the Well Witch, murdered a baby to fulfil somebody’s wish. Things fall apart, and Hardinge chillingly draws the story out to a startling conclusion. This fantastical, folkloric and truly wonderful novel will both frighten and enchant children of twelve and up.
There are also elements of the folktale and the fairy story in Tim Lott’s Fearless. Although his novel treads familiar ground, he can be forgiven, since his heroine, Little Fearless, is appealing and courageous. The setting is an Institute for delinquent girls in a totalitarian city. The inmates are enslaved and deprived of their identities, so they give each other nicknames like Beauty and Stargazer. Little Fearless escapes – three times, in traditional fairy tale style – to spread the word that the Institute is not what it seems. It presents mellow, rose-tinted walls to the outside world; inside, they are black and cold. The citizens are led by The Boss, and fed a diet of propaganda on their vidscreens; Little Fearless aims to break them out of their torpor.
Lott comes slightly unstuck with his MESSAGE, especially when he starts talking about the endless war on terrorism that the city is engaged upon. You can all but hear the creaking of the allegory wheels. That said, this is an engrossing, if a little worthy, book.
Marcus Sedgwick’s Blood Red, Snow White is the closest thing that he has written to an adult novel. Usually concerned with vampires and clairvoyants, here he turns to solid fact. It concerns the author of Old Peter’s Russian Tales. Arthur Ransome is in Russia during the First World War and the Revolution as a journalist; what’s more, he’s in love with a Bolshevik – Trotsky’s secretary, no less. Suspected by both sides of being an agent, he must wade through the murky waters to find happiness. Based on documents released by the secret services, Sedgwick’s novel is challenging, stark and uncompromising, a thoroughly satisfying read for older teenagers – and it might even give them a taste for history.
Flora Segunda of Crackpot Hall by Ysabeau Wilce is crazy and original, although somewhat overlong. Flora Segunda Nemain Fyrdraaca ov Fyrdraaca lives in the shadow of her dead older sister. There are four ‘great’ houses in Califa, each inhabited by a ‘denizen’ – a Butler with supernatural powers. The Fyrdraacas were once the glory of their country; now they moulder, their eleven-thousand-room Hall empty. By mistake Flora stumbles across Valefor, the Butler of the house whom her fearsome mother has imprisoned; in trying to restore him she and her kilt-wearing friend Udo become entangled with perilous matters which will eventually see Flora restoring the Fyrdraaca fortunes.
Unfortunately, Flora is mildly irritating – she has a fixation with the word ‘potty’, for example. It feels rather like an American high-school girl playing at being an English aristocrat. The world of Califa does not ring true, either. There is an uneasy mixture of Mexican and Germanic mythologies, and the city never becomes alive. But Flora’s adventures are wild and exciting, and the boisterous exuberance of the writing will carry girls (and some boys) away for the whole holiday.
Here, There Be Dragons by James A Owen made me wonder why publishers don’t bother changing Americanisms into English. It is very annoying to read supposedly English people saying ‘skeptical’ and ‘pleased to make your acquaintance’, especially when they are meant to be mid-twentieth-century Oxford men who turn out to be famous fantasy writers (there are three – guess who). John, Jack and Charles (Jack is a nickname) are entrusted with the ‘Imaginarium Geographica’, an atlas of all the imaginary worlds (Lilliput and so on) which exist in ‘The Archipelago of Dreams’.
In a Da Vinci Code-style ‘twist’ it turns out that every ‘fantasy’ writer worth his or her salt (Shakespeare, Mary Shelley) has guarded this atlas from evil influence; the three fledgling writers must continue their guardianship and defend both the real and the imaginary worlds, whilst dealing with dogmen, The Winter King and far too many elves for my liking. I disapprove of the idea that writers can’t make things up on their own, and the novel is slightly too obsessed with referring to other books, but it will suit boys with a taste for adventure.