The Near Witch: Spooky, heavy on mood and imagery

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsYA fantasy book reviews Victoria Schwab The Near WitchThe Near Witch by Victoria Schwab

“There are no strangers in the town of Near.” That is, until the night Lexi sees a strange boy outside her window — one who seems to have uncanny abilities. Then, Pied-Piper-style, the children of Near begin to disappear, lured away by a song. Lexi, as an adolescent, can only hear broken snatches of the song. But her little sister is vulnerable to it. The whole town seems convinced that the strange boy is the kidnapper, but Lexi thinks the disappearances are tied to the legend of the Near Witch, who lived and died in Near long ago but is remembered in tales and songs.

Victoria Schwab writes beautifully and perfectly evokes the blustery weather on the moors and the xenophobia of the town of Near, where any stranger or nonconformist is automatically suspect. Schwab makes the interesting decision to leave the time period hazy. We don’t know what year it is, and it could be anytime after the invention of guns. There aren’t enough clothing details to pin it down, or even transportation details — the town is so small that everyone just walks everywhere. It adds to the sense of a place that rarely changes. In Near, this story could have happened two hundred years ago, or just last week.

When thinking about the prose, the strongest impression I get is that of “almost.” Schwab excels at describing what is almost seen, almost heard, almost felt: the sound of a song you can’t quite hear, or the tentative brush of a hand in the beginning stages of flirtation.

The middle sags a bit; Lexi continually sneaks out to look for clues, and these expeditions get a little repetitive as well as frustrating because her sister might be better served by a different course of action. But as the book builds toward its climax, it’s suspenseful and scary. The climactic scene is almost over too quickly, but it works, and the ending is satisfying. (And if you’re wondering, The Near Witch is a standalone.)

Overall, The Near Witch is enjoyable, with a spooky atmosphere, haunting folklore, and a bit of romance. It also gets points from me for being so different from the rest of the current YA books. If you like novels that are heavy on mood and imagery, and you are OK with a bit of slowness in the plot, The Near Witch may be for you.

The Near Witch — (2011) Young Adult. Publisher: 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. And 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. Still, he insists on helping Lexi search for them. Something tells her she can trust him. 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. Part fairy tale, part love story, Victoria Schwab’s debut novel is entirely original yet achingly familiar: a song you heard long ago, a whisper carried by the wind, and a dream you won’t soon forget.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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