Book Review: The Near Witch by V.E. Schwab
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of The Near Witch
Publisher: Titan Books (March 12, 2019)
Length: 354 pages
When I heard that V.E. Schwab’s long out-of-print debut novel The Near Witch was going to be re-issued, my first thought was, “Oh hell yes, I’d read it!” even with the full understanding that things might be a little rough. Schwab may be an experience writer now, but debuts are debuts—most are like raw, uncut gems, their latent potential waiting to be released. I certainly wasn’t going to judge it by the same standards as I would apply to her later books.
What I didn’t expect, however, was how much I loved this. The prose was plain, the story was simple, but in that straightforwardness was also a refreshing sweetness and charm I haven’t seen a lot from the author’s newer works. In a way, The Near Witch reads very much like a traditional folk tale. Taking place in the sleepy little village of Near, the story follows Lexi, who lives with her mother and little sister Wren. Before her father died, he had taught her that witches are just like anyone else—there are good ones, bad ones, and most just wish to be left alone to their own lives. Unfortunately though, many of the other villagers hold on to more old-fashioned views, mistrusting the two elderly sisters who live on the edge of town. Whispers of witchcraft have long surrounded Magda and Dreska Thorne, but for the most part, the people of Near have tolerated their presence.
However, that was before the children started disappearing, called from their beds by a magical voice in the wind. Suspicions immediately fall upon the Thorne sisters, who are also accused of protecting a mysterious stranger who has just arrived in town. But Lexi has met this stranger, and knows he has nothing to do with the disappearances. Cole, as she called him, is just a youth hardly older than herself, and he has an idea of the real reason behind the missing children. Lexi wants to help him, but her efforts are prevented by her overprotective uncle Otto as well as some of her “friends” like Tyler who think proper girls should know their place and leave the search to the men. What none of them realize is that Near’s legends know no bounds or limits; an ancient force has awakened, and it won’t rest until a wrong has been righted.
As I said, there is nothing complicated about the plot to The Near Witch; in fact, Schwab places more emphasis on the atmosphere than the story or even the characters. But I think this, more than anything, is what gives the book that timeless allure, like a fairy tale or legend you can pick up five, ten, or twenty years from now and still have its setting and mood resonate with readers. This has allowed the novel some lenience, despite having many of the same flaws as typical debuts. For example, Lexi and Cole aren’t particularly well drawn, nor are many of the other townsfolk who read like clichéd archetypes. But because this falls into the expected pattern for a story resembling traditional folklore, a perceived weakness actually ends up becoming a strength.
So although The Near Witch might not be as complex or developed, I nevertheless found it to be more enjoyable than some of the author’s newer books. Its classic themes are familiar and relatable, like those of friendship, love, and redemption. It is also a story about a young woman wanting something more than what society has dictated for her, as well as her determination to show that she can and will succeed where those trying to suppress her have failed. While nothing new is presented here that thousands of Young Adult novels have not already covered, the beauty and pureness of the story’s ideas and emotions come through in their simplicity.
Also included at the end of this book is a heartbreaking little novella called The Ash-Born Boy, intended to be a prequel that reveals Cole’s origins. The fairy tale-like feel is even stronger in this one, given that it is so short, beguiling, and tragically dark. If you enjoyed Cole’s character in The Near Witch, then you’ll no doubt also love this story which adds even more depth to his personality and explores his troubled past.
In sum, there is nothing deep or earth-shattering about The Near Witch, but this magical 2011 debut by V.E. Schwab nonetheless managed to exceed all my expectations for it. Her writing was solid even then, deftly creating the timeless atmosphere and weaving in the folktale vibes I loved so much. All in all, a delightful and enjoyable read—like a nice, sweet treat.