V. E. Schwab has published more than a dozen books in the last eight years, crafting stories in a range of genres, becoming an international best-selling author. The latest release in her bibliography, The Near Witch, is actually her first novel, republished for the first time in a gorgeous hardback, giving her fans across the world the chance to experience her original book.
The Near Witch tells the story of the isolated village of Near, and the young woman Lexi that lives there. Eager to follow in her fathers footsteps, to travel the moors and explore nature, and to be more than just a wife and mother.
Near is an idyllic town that’s kept to itself for years, possibly decades, one where the people live a simple existence. The setting feels very real, with the village and the moors that surround it as much a character as those who live their. It feels real and lived in. So when a stranger suddenly arrives in the village it feels wrong, even as a reader that has spent so little time there it isn’t right.
It’s a testament to the skills that Schwab brings to plan here in her first book, that she manages to create this sense of unease so well, one that will not only last for the whole experience, but will turn to full blown horror as events unfold.
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The gradual disappearance of village children over several nights is disturbing in itself, but when Lexi learns more details, windows unlatching themselves, and her younger sister hearing whispering voices in the night, things take an incredibly sinister turn. This is the horror of The Near Witch, an invasive sense of dread that keeps intensifying as more children vanish and the reasons why become more apparent. The Near Witch reminds me a great deal of The Woman in Black, and the slow building towards answers and a terrifying encounter with an otherworldly entity.
Lexi is an interesting protagonist to follow, mainly because she comes to the story with her own separate conflict that feeds into the situation the village now faces. The daughter of the previous village protector, she grew up learning the skills needed to track the missing children, and the wisdom to know that the unknown isn’t necessarily evil. Unfortunately, Lexi is dismissed because of her gender, and must fight against those who feel she is overstepping her bounds.
Whilst the focus is on Lexi, the arrival of the mysterious Cole is a big part of the story, with his identity and motives questions that are slowly revealed. In some ways he’s more interesting than Lexi, though this is down to his unwillingness to open up, and the strange abilities that he possesses. However, the two of them work incredibly well together, not only becoming an incredibly capable team, but managing to draw the best out of each other.
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A lot of the mystery of Cole gets revealed in the additional short story included in the new hardback edition, The Ash-Born Boy. Whilst this story gives the reader answers, and adds more to the few things we do know about his past, it doesn’t ruin the character as can sometimes happen. Instead, Cole is made more interesting, more human, and more relatable in the main story.
The Near Witch might be V.E. Schwabs first story, but it’s crafted with a level of skill and elegance that many authors fail to achieve across their whole career. A slow building and subtle horror, filled with mystery, intrigue, and emotion, The Near Witch is sure to enthral, whether you’re a first time reader of Schwab’s work or a long time fan.
The Near Witch is now available from Titan Books.