Mia Kish held the attention of the country when she got stuck in a well when she was four years old. Everybody knows about Baby Mia. Now, at age sixteen, Mia is a scholarship student at the elite Westbrook Academy. She’s one of the world’s best teenage swimmers, which is why she’s hated by some of her peers. When there’s a deadly virus outbreak at Westbrook and the teachers and students start rapidly aging, it’s Mia who may be able to protect her classmates. First they have to get past the quarantine guards to escape the school. Then they have to trek through a harsh winter landscape to get to the cave where Mia’s father works. Mia doesn’t know exactly what her father does at the cave, but she thinks he’s the only person who can save their town from the virus.
Although Seth Fishman’s The Well’s End contains many of the YA tropes that I’ve come to despise, I have to admit that this thriller kept me pretty well engaged. While I rolled my eyes at all the annoyingly familiar YA elements — elite boarding school, stock rich-kid characters, typical YA drama (especially before the kids escape from Westbrook) — there was enough originality and suspense to keep me reading. The action-packed adventure mostly moves fast, there are gun fights, betrayals and big surprises. Toward the end Fishman’s pace is disrupted by a couple of long expository dumps, but readers who are eager to know what’s going on probably won’t care. The Well’s End ends on a cliffhanger and I have to admit that if the sequel had been available, I probably would have picked it up right away.
Mia is the best drawn character. She comes with a unique history and some understandable quirks and phobias. To be a hero, not only must Mia use her special skills, but she has to overcome her self-imposed obstacles, too. (The character of Mia was inspired by the rescue of Baby Jessica which happened in author Seth Fishman’s hometown.) Not so well drawn is Mia’s romantic interest — the mysterious new boy at school. I thought the romance was pretty dull — another case of instalove (sigh) with a brooding mystery boy — but its drama will probably appeal to many teens.
Parents might like to know that the teens at Wesbrook Academy have parties that would definitely not be sanctioned by parents or school authorities. (This was really hard to believe in, actually.) These kids are smoking, drinking, and engaging in sexual behavior in their dorm rooms. Just so you know. I probably wouldn’t let my teenagers read The Well’s End for that reason, but that’s me.
I listened to the audio version produced by Blackstone Audio and narrated by Katie Schorr. It’s 11.5 hours long. The story is narrated in the first person and Katie Schorr’s voice and pacing is spot-on. She sounds like the teenager she’s supposed to be. Audio readers are sure to be pleased.
Thanks to a good sense of pace and a driving sense of urgency, Seth Fishman manages in The Well’s End to, for the most part, overcome some overly-familiar YA tropes and weak characterization. The positives in the end outweigh the negatives, making for a solidly exciting story, if not a particularly deep or moving one.
Mia Kish is a sixteen-year-old top class swimmer at one of the country’s more prestigious prep schools, though her real claim to fame was as “Baby Mia,” a reference to when as a small child she fell down a well, prompting a multi-day, well-covered rescue effort. Her fifteen minutes of fame that continues, superior swimming skills (beating both the girls and then the boys), and the fact that she is a townie all work against her such that she is disliked by most of the girls at school. The exceptions are her two best friends, Jo and Rob.
Her father, meanwhile, works in a large underground facility known as “The Cave,” ostensibly working on some sort of government classified computer programming. But when a fast-aging virus breaks out on campus and threatens to spread to the entire town of Fenton, Mia learns that her dad has been keeping quite a few secrets from her. Secrets she and her friends, along with a new boy on campus, will have to untangle, as their only chance of surviving the virus is to make to The Cave and her father. Only to do so, they’ll have to elude the soldiers quarantining the school, as well as the mysterious Sutton, a man who seems to known more about The Cave and what it holds than anyone else.
So you can already spot several of those afore-mentioned YA tropes in The Well’s End. The loner girl who’ll be called on to be strong and plucky; the two best friends, one male, one female; the elite school filled with snobs and class/social division; and the new mysterious boy who, and is there any way this can be a spoiler, turns out to be “the one.” So yes, one big flaw in this book, and a trope I’ve grown so incredibly weary of, is how eleven lines of conversation, a meaningful glance, and a furtive brush of flesh becomes just-add-water-love! So there’s that.
Unfortunately, the mystery boy (Brayden) also is drawn pretty shallowly. He’s meant to be more complex than he is (I won’t go into why so as to avoid spoilers), but he never really feels like a real person. The same is true for several other characters, including Mia’s two good friends, her father, her father’s two co-workers, and the villain Sutton. Two other acquaintances that end up traveling with Mia’s group — Jimmy and Odessa — are given a bit more emotional depth thanks to their contracting the virus and their relationship with each other. What characterization there is tends to be pretty much told rather than shown. Mia is better drawn, but mostly as a result of the book being from her first-person point-of-view.
Fishman handles the action side of things much more effectively. The onset of the virus, the quarantine, the escape from the school (including a particularly well done scene that makes good use of Mia’s past experience at the well), and the journey to The Cave efficiently offer up suspense, action, excitement, and tension, with a good sense of pace and beat (ratcheting up the action, letting it fall off, ratcheting it up again, letting it fall … ). Things slow down at The Cave itself unfortunately, with some heavy and somewhat clumsily done exposition, but it picks up again toward the end, closing with a cliff-hanger of an ending. Book two, The Dark Water, picks up immediately. For more detail on the sequel, you can go here, but I will make two points about it. One is that it’s a weaker book, with more issues with regard to pace, the same problems with characterization (and even another insta-love), and a bit more of a plot jumble. The other is that it switches gears a bit in terms of genre, moving away from the action-suspense mode of The Well’s End and more into center-of-the-Earth/Lost World fantasy mode.
So if book one is just solid and book two is somewhat weaker, what’s the recommendation? First, I’d say these are definitely not crossover YA books; I think while most adults might find The Well’s End nicely paced and somewhat exciting, the weak characterization and eye-rolling romance will outweigh the positives. Teens, on the other hand, will probably speed right through and enjoy the first book, with teenage readers who usually enjoy more challenging work finding it a little shallow but enjoyable. Those teens not looking for much more than an exciting, suspenseful story, and younger teens will probably enjoy the first book a lot (though fair warning for younger teens — there is some drinking, some smoking, and mention of a breast or two). The Dark Water will be a bit of a disappointment, but I think those who enjoyed The Well’s End will get through it just to find out what happens, even if they don’t enjoy the journey quite as much.