Every once in a while, a writer comes along whose books are everywhere — and when you pick one up, you realize exactly what all the fuss is about. Today, Victoria Schwab, a.k.a. V.E. Schwab, is one of those writers. In recent visits to bookstores, I’ve often seen full-on displays of all of her different books, including the popular Shades of Magic series. Though still only in her early 30s, she’s written well over a dozen books and has garnered quite a fan following. If you’re into fantasy fiction in particular, she’s someone to check out.
Her very first novel was a young adult fantasy called The Near Witch. Published in 2011, it quickly went out of print. Fortunately, Victoria Schwab kept on writing, making it big with a book called Vicious. Now that she’s acquired so much fame, Titan Books decided to re-publish her debut The Near Witch just last year.
So I picked it up. And while I’ll admit it’s not for everyone, it has a home with anyone who appreciates their fantasy with a dash of darkness. Here’s what I thought of it!
**SPOILERS!** I won’t give away the ending of the story, but I will discuss a few details. So if you’re going to read the book and want to go in blind, I recommend you save this review for afterwards! 🙂
A Haunting Atmosphere
From page one, The Near Witch envelopes you in its haunting atmosphere. I fell in love with the writing style immediately. Whether Schwab wrote in a whirlwind of inspiration or labored over every word, the poetic prose makes you feel like the words just flowed from her pen. (I imagine her writing with a pen, if only because this book crackles like something old written by candlelight.) Just look at the very first paragraph:
“It starts with a crack, a sputter, and a spark. The match hisses to life.”
What attracts me to Schwab’s work is her confident writing style, and you see that here right away. The real difference here (compared to her other books) is that the writing is more melodic and, at times, melodramatic. It makes the book feel like a debut novel — a little overblown is all — but it’s still beautiful writing.
This book isn’t for the faint of heart, though. It takes place in an unspecified time, which feels like the 17th century based on the women wearing dress, the dancing games children play, the men keeping watch over the village, and the small town feel of the place. The setting and style reminds me of Wuthering Heights or some other dark romance of the past.
The protagonist Lexi lives in a tiny village, where everyone knows everybody else. Her house is on the outskirts of town, near the forest and the moors. What makes that wilderness so interesting is that a pair of sister witches live there — and so did the legendary Near Witch, who some believe existed many years ago. Nowadays, people don’t like the witches, so the sisters keep to themselves. But Lexi knows them, if only because her late father used to take her to visit them. As a keeper of the village, he trusted them when the rest of the village didn’t. And Lexi is, in many ways, fearless. She likes to be different and dares to be bold.
When children starts going missing from their beds at night, Lexi investigates. The rest of the town blames a mysterious boy who starts showing up in the forest and on the moors — but Lexi trusts him. I won’t give away the whole story, but most of the novel revolves around Lexi sneaking out at night to spend time with this magical boy, Cole, visiting the village witches and trying to figure out who’s snatching these children.
It’s a story that feels almost like a fairytale. But the atmosphere is chilling, with stories of curses, witches, and magic — not to mention a shadowed forest everyone is afraid of. That’s why I would compare this novel to a dark fairytale. Or at least a book that explores what one would be like.
A Slow Burn
The Near Witch is a slow burn of a book, and unfortunately that pacing is what could be off-putting for many readers — especially young ones. Although the story has plenty of suspense, I never felt compelled to pick up the book as soon as possible after putting it down. Instead, I read the book once in a while, as something to appreciate in small doses. It was like sipping a cup of tea, an acquired taste but something I knew was good for me.
The good news is that chapters are short and often leave on cliffhangers. This is what helped me keep reading! Sometimes I would read two or three chapters in one sitting, if only because it felt natural to continue reading after a chapter ending on, “I don’t think he did it… But I mean to find out who did.” Who doesn’t want to see where Lexi goes next?
The book has an instant-love romance that I personally found shallow and unconvincing.
But let me start by saying that I love Lexi as a character. She’s an engaging YA heroine: curious, determined, daring, grieving for her father, protective of her family, and sure of herself when facing unwanted suitors and overbearing uncles alike.
Her love interest, Cole, is the mystery character who nobody trusts but Lexi and the witches. He has the sort of tragic backstory that makes him easy fodder for a YA romance, but I found him to be boring and the love story too rushed and predictable. There’s not enough build-up to their love for each other. Instead, it feels like Lexi just likes how misunderstood he is, turning Cole into a fantasy “bad boy” who’s actually good.
Still, as a preteen girl, I might have loved the romance — which is why I don’t think it ruins the book in any way. If anything, it adds some enchantment to an otherwise dark story, as long as you don’t mind some instalove!
Teaching The Near Witch
The Near Witch is recommended for grades 5-9 (or ages 12 and up). I could see this being a beautiful book to teach in a classroom if you want to discuss imagery, symbolism, metaphor, or any other literary devices — The Near Witch has them in spades! The prose is poetic at times, transporting you to its setting through all five senses. I could see teachers reading passages aloud to show students how special writing can be, like this:
“Wren is skipping up and down the hall in her nightgown, playing games with the wooden floorboards. Her bare feet land with light thuds like rain on stones. Wren knows a thousand games for times between. Between meals and bed. Between people paying attention to her. Games with words and rules, and games without. Thud, thud, thud on the wooden floor…
“I slip into our bedroom and put my father’s book back on its shelf beside the three candles. Beyond the window the darkness slides in heavy and tired and thick.”
From that passage alone, we have several literary devices and features to explore too, such as:
- Present Tense: The entire book is written in present tense, which is unusual for novels. This would be fun to discuss with students! Does the use of present tense add a sense of urgency to what happens?
- Simile: “Her bare feet land with light thuds like rain on stones.”
- Incomplete Sentences & Series: The incomplete sentences, “Between meals and bed. Between people paying attention to her. Games with words and rules, and games without,” are beautiful examples of how a writer can increase the pace of prose while keeping meaning clear. The repetition of “between” creates the first series, and it leads into the repetition of “games” for the second series. You’ll find this kind of writing throughout the novel!
- Onomatopoeia: Try saying that five times fast! (And make sure you spell it out before class; I always need Google to help me spell that one correctly!) The simple “Thud, thud, thud,” is the sound of Wren’s feet on the wooden floorboards. See if your students can think of some other ones for common sounds!
- Personification: “Beyond the window the darkness slides in heavy and tired and thick.”
New Deluxe Edition
If you’re going to read The Near Witch, I have to recommend the version that I got, which is the new deluxe edition by Titan Books! I believe some sellers, namely Barnes & Noble, have special covers and content. But the version I have is standard for the new publish, with gorgeous tangled-branch art and a ribbon bookmark attached. It also features a new introduction by V.E. Schwab and her story “The Ash-born Boy” about Cole.
If you’re interested, click here to buy this edition from Amazon! 🙂
I would recommend The Near Witch to anyone who wants a strange fantasy that feels historical and haunting. You could call it a sweeping YA romance, with a little mystery thrown in. There is some kissing that should be fine for tweens and teens! Just keep in mind that the book’s atmosphere is dark. Prepare to immerse yourself in the woods and see where Lexi’s curiosity takes her!
If you’re interested in this book, you might like to save it to Pinterest as a reminder! 🙂
Have you read The Near Witch? I’d love to hear other readers’ thoughts on the novel!