The Near Witch by V.E. Schwab

I would like to thank Lydia at Titan for providing me with an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Titan Books

Published – 12th March

Price - £16.99 Hardback

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 stranger 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 a night, and about the history of this nameless boy.

When it comes to magic, I like to it be wild and mysterious with a price for its users. Structure and academic rules really don’t appeal to me very often. Hence, I much prefer reading folk lore and horror as both give us that sense of the natural world being just a tad eerie and numinous often without any clear explanation. In this tale from VE Schwab we have in a new hardback form her first ever published tale which gives us both what on one level is the classic tale of a girl fighting a witch but on another we get an intelligent story about growing up and discovering your world and those in charge are not quite as kind and sensible as you would like to think.

The story is narrated by Lexi who in the small isolated village of Near is the niece of the town’s Protector Otto; a role previously filled by her father before he died. Lexi was taught to be a tracker and is feeling hemmed in as Otto sees her more as a woman that should not be cutting up wood and wandering around learning to track. Witches however really do exist and two live on the outskirts of town in an uneasy truce with the local rulers, but the town still fears magic, and all the children are taught the rhyme warning them of the Near Witch who once killed a child and then mysteriously vanished. Lexi is spooked by a vanishing young man at her window and that night the first of several children vanish from their beds. Lexi investigates; concerned that her own young sister Wren may suffer the same fate, but instead she soon discovers the boy she names Cole is hiding powers of his own, despite this she finds herself believing his claims of innocence.  As Cole being an unheard-of stranger soon attracts the attention of the men of the village the duo decides to investigate Near’s legends and try to set about an ancient wrong before a long festering revenge against the town is taken.

In this tale we see Schwab deliver something more akin to a folk tale than epic or urban fantasy and the plot is very much a standalone adventure. Lexi seems the classic lead character – rebellious, intelligent and just realising she is now seen more as a woman than a child in her village. The tale involves a quest where she is guided by witches and ultimately, it’s a tale of an angry spirit. With Cole we get the suitably mysterious companion with an affinity for conjuring up the power of the wind albeit often uncontrollably. The two work closely together as a team to save the children while at the same time Lexi finds herself not just in conflict with Otto but the town council and a spurned friend, she will not date and Lexi discovers soon the people of Near may be prepared to kill in order to save their children from magic.

What I think makes this stand out is the quality of Schwab’s writing and even in an early tale like this one we have her ability to make situations haunting and capture the emotional intensity of characters and scenes. There is one scene that appears to be warm and loving but swiftly becomes terrifying.  I tend to think of Schwab as more focused about fantasy in cities of some kind but here the moor and forests that surround Near really are a character with crows, mists and an increasing sense of oppression fighting Lexi and Cole as they battle their hidden enemy. I was also really impressed by their work on character and as I’m come to expect from her work quite unusual characters – Cole who as we discover is trying to atone for his own mistakes, the witches who may or may not be on Lexi’s side and quite impressively rather than show the town as Near as completely wrong we see impressively that many of the women of Near are more prone to helping Lexi than obeying the male elders. Conversely Lexi discovers that Near itself is hiding some darker parts of its past. It’s a refreshingly nuanced look at asking if people are inherently evil or just weak when under immense pressure and can they learn to be better.

If I had one niggle it is that there is a lot of adventures overnight about finding out just part of the mystery but then Lexi having to be swiftly back home before she is due to wake up for breakfast; on the one level it is the classic fairy tale model of repeated encounters leading to an epic confrontation but it also can slightly frustrate the flow of the story. But that does feel very much an issue I can see in many first novels which ultimately this is.

Overall this is an unusual chance for readers to see where Schwab’s writing developed from. There are several elements and themes that I think draw a dotted line from this tale to all her other series which long-term fans will really enjoy but I think for any reader who enjoys revisions of folk tales this would be a great place to start and understand why so many of us enjoy her work. I again think this story is a reminder that writers should always develop in future books and while I think the concept of the new voice will always be enticing sometimes it is worthwhile to see how authors develop in their later work. It is by the way the type of story perfect to listen to on a rainy night with the wind hitting your window panes, but I hope the wind doesn’t start whispering to you…

Finally, there is a short bonus story in this edition The Ash-Born Boy that gives a further insight into one of the story’s leads (read this after the main story). This I think shows that progression in Schwab’s writing. It is a darker story and there are references to violence, family cruelty and isolation all done succinctly but powerfully, and this tale ends far more tragically. Its very haunting and well worth your time.