The Near Witch
By: Victoria (V.E.) Schwab
Publisher: Titan Books
Publication Date: March 12th 2019 (first published August 2nd 2011)
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.
It’s a peculiar thing, picking up a debut book, especially after being well acquainted with an author’s later, greater works. I remember some friends who loved Tamora Pierce being confused and disappointed by her first series, Alanna–they thought that the writing and characterization was lacking in a way I hadn’t noticed when Alanna was my first introduction to Pierce’s world. It’s an understandable disappointment, in a way, but it’s also a little unfair. Nevertheless, that was my first emotion on finishing The Near Witch.
The Near Witch is a small and simple book, especially compared to Victoria’s adult works. The main character, Lexi, lives in a small, secluded village where there are no strangers, or contact with the outside world–until a stranger does come, coinciding with the disappearance of children from the village. Lexi is absolutely convinced that the stranger, Cole, has nothing to do with the children’s disappearances, but it’s difficult to convince everyone, especially when the mysterious stranger has magic, and the villagers have a history of bad blood with witches. Lexi decides that she’s the only one who can prove that Cole is innocent, and she can only do this by finding the missing children.
Perhaps I went about reading this book the wrong way. I learned of it’s existence on Twitter, when Victoria Schwab announced that it was being republished after going out of print seven years ago. And, because I’d loved all of the books I’d read of Victorias, both YA (This Savage Song and This Dark Duet), and adult (Vicious), I decided that I needed to read this book as well. Maybe I also knew too much about the circumstances around the book. Victoria has been very honest on social media about the ups and downs of her publishing career–how this was her debut, but it tanked, how she wrote Vicious after this, in a Sara Bareilles ‘I’m not going to write you a love song’ moment. I had expected this to be some secret, undiscovered masterpiece. But, after I thought a moment, I realized my disappointment was unfair. I shouldn’t have expected the Near Witch to be anything other than what it is–a YA debut book, by an author who would later go on to shrug off the assumed standards of the publishing industry, but hadn’t when she wrote and published this book at my age.
And, quite frankly, this was not a bad book. I enjoyed Lexi and her determination to push back against the confines of the village social mores, her cleverness and her courage. Although the book didn’t dive into the spooky, atmospheric depths that I know Victoria is capable of, it was hinting at this–a long-dead witch stealing children via the wind, whose bones need to be dug up to kill her? And although it was a bit of a shock to actually have a romance in a Victoria Schwab book, it worked, if only because Cole was the only non-jerk in the village. There were a lot of just-under-the-surface themes, like xenophobia, the kind of small-town mentality that can be dangerous in the long run, being an outsider, and such. I also thought there were some moments of women’s solidarity going behind the backs of men that were interesting, and fit with my experience of women helping each other.
I might reread it at some point, and try to do so without expectations, but I still appreciated the book for what it was. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this if, say, you’re a fan of Victoria Schwab’s adult work–but I wouldn’t say that this is a bad book, or one to be avoided, and I wish I could have read it without prejudice or expectations.
Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.