The Near Witch, by V.E. Schwab, is one of those rare books that may work better if well adapted for the screen. It contains a number of electric set pieces that could be awesome and terrifying if presented with appropriate sound and effects. They are granted a great many words to bring to life on the page.
Even beyond these the wider plot too often drags through its world building and repetitive activity. The concept is of our time – a community fearful of strangers and of change – but the fantasy powers foreshadowed never fully deliver.
The story opens with two sisters settling down to sleep in their candlelit bedroom. Sixteen year old Lexi is telling a story to five year old Wren. The narrative unfolds from the point of view of the older girl. We learn that her father is dead and her mother still mourning, now a shadow of her former self. Their uncle, Otto, lives close and keeps an eye on the little family. He disapproves of Lexi’s continuing interest in her father’s occupation as a tracker. Sixteen is the marrying age of the girls in the town and Lexi has a suitor, one she has little interest in.
The action is set in the town of Near. This is a remote community surrounded by moorland and, as the residents neither see strangers nor leave, must be self sufficient – something that is not explained. Generations ago a witch was banished and the children sing songs about the associated tale in their games. There are still two elderly witches in residence. They live on the edges and are treated with suspicion.
When a stranger is spotted, Lexi is curious. She believes that the witches know more about this young man than they will admit. Then children start to disappear and she fears for the safety of Wren. The town elders blame the stranger, assuming his unexpected arrival cannot be coincidental. Shut out from the efforts of these men, who are tasked with protecting the town, Lexi plans her own mission.
As each child is taken, Lexi seeks advice from the witches and tries to find out more about the stranger. She is warned away from involvement by Otto who eschews her supposed skills as a tracker. A love story is developing against a backdrop of growing suspicion. As the elders are making little progress they look for someone to blame.
The introduction by the author explains that this novel, her debut, was written when she was still at university. It was the spark that lit the flame of her successful career. It has fine ideas and some interesting characters but lacks the momentum needed to hold uninterrupted interest. I would have preferred tighter pacing.
Following The Near Witch, the book contains a second, shorter story, The Ash-Born Boy. This offers further background on the stranger who arrived in Near. Because of his powers he was abused by his step-father, something in which his mother was complicit. The tale posed as many questions as it answered.
The edition I read is gorgeously presented with embossed hard covers, end papers, ribbon and illustrations. I suspect it will be enjoyed by the author’s fans who may wish to better understand where her ideas began. As a first exposure to her work it may not have been the best place to start.
A promising concept and adept use of language but overlong and repetitive given the action contained.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Titan Books.