There are never any strangers in the isolated moorland village of Near. Until now. A mysterious young man has been glimpsed in the moonlight. A child disappears each night. Is the stranger to blame, or does the moor harbour dark secrets?
The Near Witch was V E Schwab’s debut, an atmospheric fairytale brought back to vibrant life (seriously, this edition is gorgeous) by Titan Books. Given it’s about whether the dead can reach out from beyond the grave, a resurrection seems appropriate; thankfully, it will be a more welcome addition to your bookshelf than the Near Witch herself would be to your community!
The Near Witch has all the trappings of a typical YA tale – expect a first person present narrative with a headstrong teenage heroine challenging convention (but falling in love at first sight). And if I’m brutally honest, I can see why it didn’t make Schwab’s name straight out of the gate. There’s plenty of promise, but the execution lacks the verve of her later works. For all The Near Witch is short, it’s both repetitive and oddly paced (and its insistence on returning home at dawn and dusk feels frustratingly interruptive rather than lending fairytale magic). However, it’s still an engaging read.
Lexi’s beloved father, Protector of Near, is recently deceased. Lexi is determined to step into her father’s boots (literally, metaphorically and repeatedly), desiring nothing more than to know the moor as he did. When she glimpses a stranger through a night-time window, her world is rocked to the foundations. Why?
There are no strangers in Near.
It’s a central tenet of her world; and it seems to be a lie. When her best friend’s brother vanishes from his bed, she tracks the stranger down and confronts him – but is persuaded that he’s not to blame. Guided by her new friend and by the fabulously witchy Thorne sisters, she is instead drawn to investigate whether a dark power is reaching out from the moor itself. This sets her up for a head-on confrontation with her elders, quick to blame any outsider as children disappear night after night. But can anyone bring them back?
I really liked how The Near Witch deals with boundaries and belonging, with the demonisation of the unknown, and with the writing out of history of past crimes. While the Near Witch is the eponymous monster, it soon sets up the villagers themselves as the true villains of the piece: small-minded, fearful, reaching for easy answers. Having decided the unknown boy is guilty, they’re prepared to frame him in lieu of evidence and implicitly willing to torture him to get the answers they need. This cold-eyed depiction of a community driven by fear was more chilling than the ghost story itself (and oh, how timely. Do not let fear determine your choices).
I also liked that Schwab subverts the traditional YA love triangle. Lexi’s childhood friend Tyler is pursuing her hand in marriage, but it’s clear from the get-go that Lexi isn’t interested. Tyler may be borrowing from the Brooding YA Hero playbook, but Lexi isn’t having any of it – she recognises his behaviour as toxic, and rejects it.
Lexi isn’t torn, either; although she’s making eyes at the mysterious stranger. And inevitably – it’s a pet hate of mine, after all – the insta-love rankled. Worse, I think I would have shipped Lexi and Cole if they’d been given more time to establish a relationship. But Lexi is all skipped heartbeats and goosebumps from the first time she meets him; and while I understand how exciting it must be to talk to a pretty boy you didn’t grow up with, the more natural reaction would surely have been oh hai creepy pixie dream boy where is my best friend’s brother?
Unfortunately, once one thing started niggling me, it was a little too easy to find fault with other aspects of the novel.
Schwab demonstrates her assured command of narrative even in this first outing – everything is carefully interwoven, from world-building / mythology to the atmospheric use of language – but you better embrace its fairytale logic, because if you take even a second to think about it, it’s absurd.
Why the hell are there no strangers in Near? What village in the history of the world was ever this isolated? And if it is this isolated, it must be incredibly in-bred (because it’s really not very big). Nobody appears to farm or trade, so where are they getting the leather for their boots and the metal for their knives – not to mention their guns? Clearly it can be travelled to – Cole manages it, after all (although arguably he has other advantages); so why hasn’t anyone done so? Maybe because the folk of Near are so unpleasantly small-minded?
Ahem, I digress. The world of The Near Witch works as a dark fairytale; just don’t scratch the surface, because there’s not a lot of world-building logic underpinning it. The game of smoke and mirrors is more effectively applied to the characters, who are for the most part (very) thinly but deftly drawn (if less vibrant than in Schwab’s later work).
Controversially, my favourite was probably controlling Uncle Otto. I didn’t like his choices, but I appreciated the glimpses into his internal world; he feels much more rounded than the rest of the cast. Don’t get me started on Lexi’s empty-eyed mother, withdrawn in her grief except for when she’s showing ‘a flash of her old spirit’ and subverting the patriarchy behind Otto’s back; or Lexi’s manic pixie dream sister. You either love and accept these archetypes or you wish the characters were more than walking talking tropes.
Otto does all the wrong things in service to his need to keep his nieces safe, crumbling under the pressure of a civic role he never asked for and a vow made to an estranged, dying brother. And there’s no overlooking how wrong he gets things: determined to control his wayward niece and marry her off; unable to consider alternatives to an easy narrative of ‘fear the stranger’; and willing to countenance the worst suggestions of his sidekick Bo. It wouldn’t be wrong to write him off as just another patriarchal bully, but I ended up having some sympathy for him.
Lexi herself I found less interesting, going through the motions of a well-established role. And that probably encapsulates my main issue with The Near Witch: it’s fine, but it doesn’t stand out.
Those seeking a simple tale of love, redemption and dead witches will find plenty to enjoy. Those looking for a more complex fantasy should probably avoid, as should those who can’t look past the unavoidable tropes to enjoy the intriguing central themes. I was left with mixed feelings, but it’s lovely to see where it all started (although gosh, I’m glad I started with A Darker Shade of Magic).
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.