Sometimes I feel like being chased out of my comfort zone by a book that makes me think. This week I’m recommending one such book – `Verdigris Deep’ by Frances Hardinge (first published by Macmillan in 2007). This is urban fantasy with a contemporary British setting but it draws on one of the oldest of British traditions, a belief in spirits who dwell in ponds, lakes and wells. In ancient times people threw offerings (usually metal objects) into the water in the hope that their prayers would be heard and granted. Throwing coins into a wishing-well is a modern equivalent. It’s extraordinary how popular this custom still is. In my home town of Cheltenham every public pond, even the fountain inside a shopping centre, has a glittering mass of coins on the bottom. The custom may appear harmless but in `Verdigris Deep’  it becomes something very sinister. Wishes  going wrong is a common theme in fantasy but Hardinge takes it to a new level – or do I mean depth? Her novel forced me to examine why I often make wishes rather than trying to do something practical to change my life.

The story begins when three children, Josh, Ryan and Chelle, are stranded in the dismal suburb of  Magwhite and need money for their bus-fares home. Small, nerdy Ryan and clumsy chatterbox Chelle are the devoted followers of charismatic Josh who comes up with the plan of taking coins from a deserted wishing-well.  After they use the coins the children acquire some bizarre powers and Ryan sees scary visions of a woman with water gushing from her eyes. They discover that the angry Well Spirit is compelling them to grant the wishes of the people whose coins Josh stole.

Much of `Verdigris Deep’ is very funny as Chelle starts spouting other people’s thoughts at embarrassing moments and the children attempt to get a Harley-Davidson bike for one wisher, and to win the unsuitable man of her dreams for a woman they all dislike.  Then the story gets darker and stranger. Clever, charming reckless Josh seems like a typical adventure-story hero but it gradually becomes apparent how disturbed and ruthless he is. Initially, Ryan fails to stand up to Josh and looks down on poor Chelle. Startling events force Ryan to see his friends more clearly.  As he gets involved in the lives of the wishers he begins to realize that people often wish for the wrong things. There is a hidden part to many seemingly innocuous wishes and granting these subconscious wishes can be very dangerous indeed.

Hardinge is a clever story-teller with a distinctive style (`Little spasms of violet lightning flickered like scratches in an old film’) and a gift for summing up character in a pithy way – `Ryan’s parents both had large, gleaming, hot-air-balloon personalities. Sometimes it was hard to fit them into the same house.’  Hardinge claims to love words and it shows. She can even make shopping-trolleys frightening. Best of all is her portrait of the lonely frustrated Well Spirit, part monster, part forgotten goddess, clinging to the only reason for her existence – granting wishes. I found the poignant ending to this novel unforgettable. I hope that you will too. Until next week.