Before I start this review, I would like to tell you a little story. It starts nearly five years ago, when I was attending Worldcon in London, and I happened to attend a panel on urban fantasy (or possible YA), because some of my favourite authors were on it.* Also on that panel was a 27 year old author I’d never previously heard of, even though she’d already published five books. And she started talking about one of those books, and how it was about a library of the dead, and I was completely and utterly sold. I quite liked the sound of her other books too – the already published creepy superhero book, the forthcoming fantasy book which featured four different Londons, and her debut, about witches and fear and consequences. The Near Witch was already out of print at that point, and almost impossible to find, so I was pretty certain I’d never get the chance to read it. And then suddenly, Victoria/V E Schwab became a (well deserved) phenomenon, and even her more recent books were being published in collectors editions, so it was kind of inevitable that her debut would eventually join them. Thank goodness for Titan, who were also kind enough to gift me a copy of The Near Witch in exchange for an honest review.
The Near Witch is only an old story told to frighten children.
If the wind calls at night, you must not listen. The wind is lonely, and always looking for company.
There are no strangers in the town of Near.
These are the truths that Lexi has heard all her life.
But when an actual stranger, a boy who seems to fade like smoke, appears outside her home on the moor at night, she knows that at least one of these sayings is no longer true.
The next night, the children of Near start disappearing from their beds, and the mysterious boy falls under suspicion.
As the hunt for the children intensifies, so does Lexi’s need to know about the witch that just might be more than a bedtime story, about the wind that seems to speak through the walls at night, and about the history of this nameless boy.
First of all, can we take a moment to appreciate that cover? When they announced it, I thought it was a bit weird, but now I love it! It’s so striking. If you’re not aware, there are actually three covers – the one above is the standard edition, there’s a grey one exclusive to Forbidden Planet (which is the one I pre-ordered – they now come signed too!) and a yellow one that’s exclusive to Barnes and Noble in the US. The boards underneath the dustjacket are also beautiful – the standard edition is a deep maroon with a silhouette of Lexi in gold and it’s gorgeous.
Second of all, if you follow me on twitter, you may have seen me tweet that the introduction to this book made me cry. Yes, the introduction. It’s Victoria talking about how sad she was when The Near Witch originally went out of print, and how unusual it is for a book to get a second chance like this, and it just made me very emotional, ok? I am, if you haven’t guessed already, a huge fan of Victoria. I think she’s amazing, not least in the number of books she has published in the last eight years, and I think it’s wonderful that her debut is getting a new lease of life.
Third of all, it’s actually time for me to talk about the book itself. I know. It’s taken a little bit to get here – I hope you’ll forgive me. So, personally, I loved The Near Witch. If I didn’t know it was a debut, I wouldn’t have picked it up from the writing, although it’s clear that Victoria’s writing has improved with each book. It is quite slow to get going, but to me it was a very lyrical style of writing, and it suited the pacing. I know that’s not for everyone though, so bear it in mind if you’re thinking of picking it up.
The Near Witch is essentially a fairytale, and that’s exactly how it reads to me. The town of Near has a legend that comes with a song even the smallest child knows, and that song is often carried on the wind (incidentally, I’m writing this as Storm Gareth rages outside and the wind is whistling and howling, which seems very appropriate and not a little creepy!). There are no strangers in Near – everyone knows everybody’s business – but that means that when a stranger does appear, he is immediately suspect. The fact that he appears just as children start going missing does not help! Only Lexi is convinced he’s innocent, but she has her own problems, and it’s not easy for her to prove it.
I really liked Lexi. She’s confident in her own skills, but frustrated by the patriarchal society she’s a part of. Her family, particularly her little sister, is her world, and her devastation at the death of her father is an ever-present undercurrent to the story. I was less convinced by her love story with Cole, the stranger who appears one night, but that’s ok, because even Lexi and Cole are tentative about it. I’ve seen some people describe it as instalove, but it didn’t come across that way to me. As it’s a book written in first person, from Lexi’s point of view, we only find out information about Cole as she does, and so he doesn’t have as much depth of character as Lexi, but I liked his story too, and we get to find out more in the novella that’s been packaged in this edition, The Ash-Born Boy.
I thought the world of The Near Witch was beautifully evoked. I live in a city in the north-west of England but I’m close enough to the Yorkshire moors to be able to picture the setting exactly. And I think that’s one reason I liked it so much. It’s never stated where Near is, and I’m sure if you live elsewhere, you can imagine it to be somewhere near you, but for me, it was definitely northern England, and I always have a soft spot for books set in the north!
I’m going to stop rambling on now, but I really loved The Near Witch. It may have been V E Schwab’s debut, but it’s definitely stood the test of time. I’m now sad that it didn’t get the life it deserves the first time round too, but this is a beautiful edition of a beautiful book, and it’s well worth your hard-earned cash. You might think I’m biased, but the only way you can tell for sure is by reading it yourself, so why don’t you?
The Near Witch is out now, from Titan Books
*I didn’t get to spend much time at that Worldcon, thanks to ending up in hospital, and my second most vivid memory of the panel is that the moderator was terrible. But I’m so glad that panel was one I managed to attend anyway, because otherwise, who knows how late to the V E Schwab party I might have been?