Release: August 2, 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.
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.
Picture stepping into an old personal library as rain bursts against the windows, almost drowning out the snaps of the baby twigs breaking into the blaze in the fireplace. The tall mahogany book cases house hundreds of leather-bound novels, not the eye-catching fiction on sale at Barnes and Nobel, but first editions of some of your favorite classics. You slide one slowly from the shelf and open it carefully, inhaling its old-book scent, slowly turning the darkening pages, and falling again into a story you read years ago.
That is what reading The Near Witch is like.
Some stories are all about plot, flaunting twists and turns like flags for enticement, and some focus on language, showcasing painstaking sentences gorgeous enough to make readers cry. The Near Witch features elements of both of these styles, but more than anything, it is a book led by its mood. Aching with ambiance, it hooks readers from the first page with its atmosphere that the last paragraph of the summary describes perfectly.
A dark, serious tone manifests with the help of the knotted mystery Lexi tries to solve. This tale is one of high stakes, and each layer of confusion is edged in danger and fear of the unknown. The mystery of the missing children lacks a bit when it comes to unexpected twists; Lexi essentially solves it toward the beginning and spends the rest of the book executing the plans she devises based on her findings. However, it creates a thick atmosphere of confusion because readers are never certain whether or not she is right and never know whom to trust. I read the entire book wary of the stranger the main character Lexi meets and grows closer to, and I turned every page looking out for what the village men would do next, which created a thrilling reading environment.
And yet, The Near Witch is in a way whimsical, mirroring a childhood story buried in the back of an adult's mind. Lexi's 5-year-old sister, Wren, is unrealistically precocious and wise beyond her years, but her innocence seems to collectively symbolize the entire town's blissful ignorance that goes terribly wrong. This book essentially relates a tale of children, those who do not know any better drawing from a story for young people, simply trying to protect their own children from forces they do not understand. The dangerous things they do because of that innocence create the creepiest mood of all and leave eerie questions hanging about the repercussions of assuming and judging prematurely.
Both of these qualities combine to form a dreamlike, surreal atmosphere with a sinister streak that the airy but vibrant writing only intensifies. Although I wish the mystery had shown more false leads, Schwab creates a mood successful enough to make up for any shortcomings, and I recommend it just on that account. Finishing The Near Witch feels like waking up from a dream, memory fuzzy, unable to tell whether it was a sweet one or nightmare.