The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab is a ghost story—strange, haunting, spooky. It takes place in the fictional town of Near, surrounded by a moor that is eerie and lovely, steeped in natural magic. From the beginning, it’s clear that this is not a setting where you walk around alone after dark. The wind is a moody, living being. The people are alternately scared and suspicious of unspoken things. The children of Near sing a creepy (and poetically beautiful) rhyme about the Near Witch when they play. Some books sink their teeth into you from the start. Others steal upon you unawares, and then choke you in a python squeeze. The Near Witch is the second kind. The uneasy mood has a slow build, until halfway through, when I found myself wrinkling the pages and seeking a sunnier spot to read.
We inhabit the first person narrative/perspective of Lexi, a teenage girl who is growing restless in Near. Her father was the village Protector before he died, a.mmnnd he taught Lexi to be a hunter and a tracker. Unlike most of Near, she sees the moor and the witches as something awing instead of frightening. Lexi is capable and independent, but as she grows of marriageable age, more and more restrictions are imposed on her. When she sees a strange boy outside her window one night, she decides to find him before the townspeople—led by her uncle—can drive him away.
Lexi has the same protective instincts as her father, which I think explains why, when children begin to disappear from their beds at night, Lexi is immediately driven to find them—to protect her own little sister, the local witches who she’s befriended and who the villagers will suspect, and the stranger, who she names Cole.
Lexi is a strong, opinionated character, and I loved reading from her point of view. After her father passed away, her uncle became the head of the household, and she clashes with him repeatedly. Not only does she chafe under her uncle’s ideas of what is right and proper for a girl her age, but her uncle is the man leading the town to hunt down Cole. When most of the village succumbs to hysteria and suspicion, those feelings become as much of an antagonist as the Near Witch herself—at that point, I couldn’t put the book down.
One of my favorite chapters is when Lexi and Cole swap stories about their pasts. The Near Witch is incredibly layered with stories—bedtime tales and folktales. Each chapter peels back a layer of someone’s history—the history of the village, of Cole, of the Near Witch. All of it is definitely interesting, but there are moments when the stories turn circular—the same threads being taken up again and again, with only slight variations. There are ominous undercurrents throughout the book, but the tension and action don’t really explode until the last 50 pages.
The Near Witch strikes the perfect balance between the lovely and the creepy. Though it doesn’t quite reach full-on sinister, I felt chilled nonetheless.
Lee likes all things spy, smelling books, and is almost always craving a cheeseburger. She tweets from @lkyim about reading books NOT assigned for class. Also she likes Greek mythology. And dogs.