08 July 2011

24 Days, 1 Hour, 9 Minutes, 13 Seconds

The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab (Release Date August 2, 2011; Disney-Hyperion)
Review by Laura Beutler

There are no strangers in the town of Near.

But there is a stranger. Lexi sees him outside the window. He fades away like smoke.

The next night, Near’s children begin to disappear from their beds. The town blames the stranger, a boy Lexi names Cole. For some reason, she trusts him. He insists on helping Lexi find the missing children. As they search, they realize the Near Witch is more than a story told to frighten children.

Whose whispers does Lexi hear on the moor? What is the Near Witch? What has taken Near’s children? Lexi must find the answers to these questions before tension in Near drives the town to do the unthinkable.

I knew The Near Witch was something special when I read this sentence, “The wind on the moor is a tricky thing.” It gave me chills. To say that Victoria Schwab’s novel is “amazing” would be pretty close to saying that the Grand Canyon is “a decent-sized hole in the ground.” I think if Victoria spent the rest of her life writing instruction manuals, we would all fight over those manuals and sit reading them, engrossed. That’s how amazing Victoria is. The Near Witch is a magnificent debut. I can hardly believe it is a debut. Victoria’s writing is lyrical and flows effortlessly. With every richly-imagined landscape and every living, breathing character, I was pulled deeper and deeper into The Near Witch, until the only way to catch my attention was to grab my arm and shake me.

This caused some problems at work.

I found myself thinking about characters, like Lexi, her uncle Otto, her mother, her little sister, as if each were a real person. When Lexi was threatened, I wasn’t just worried about what might happen to her, I was afraid of the people who threatened her. The characters had come alive for me. Each had quirks; each had flaws. What I loved the most about every character was that no single person was “good” or “bad.” The characters were people, capable of kindness and cruelty. Very rarely does a novel achieve this feat with EVERY character; minor characters are often overlooked. But Victoria Schwab makes it happen for each character, with details emerging even in footprints left behind by a little boy. I applaud Victoria here; she truly impressed me. And she made me cry at the circulation desk several times, which is the mark of an exquisite novel*.

The setting of The Near Witch also stands out. The town of Near is like an island, the moor surrounds it like an ocean. We have no idea what lies beyond the moor, giving the story the kind of timeless, place-less feeling all great fairy tales have. Hansel and Gretel could have been lost in the woods near my house, near your house, or in Germany or China, and Lexi’s story has much the same tone. I loved the way Victoria slowly built up tension until it felt as if Near had walls that were slowly closing in around you. Soon I felt as trapped as Lexi did, longing for her nightly escapes to the moor. Late in the novel, it was only when Lexi was outside of Near that I could seem to breathe. At that point, I was blatantly ignoring parts of my life (like meals) in order to keep reading. I’m also obsessed with settings (like cities or forests or MOORS) acting as characters in novels. The moor that surrounds Near is FASCINATING. Anything more than that would be spoilery. You’ll have to find out what I mean when you read the book (and you MUST read the book**).

I love books, all books, but rarely do I find one that I adore so much as I did The Near Witch. I read it three times, back to back, and when my Netgalley copy was about to expire and VANISH from my life, I read it one more time, savoring every word, because I knew it would be months before I got my hands on The Near Witch again. If you follow me on Twitter, you know how obsessed I am with this novel. I LOVED The Near Witch. I have already shoved aside other books on my Favorites Shelf to make a space for this one***. I even dusted! This way, if I ever stop reading it, my copy will have a special place. Love Patricia McKillip and Neil Gaiman? Make room on your bookshelves for The Near Witch!

*Beautiful writing makes me cry.

**This is a requirement, not a suggestion.

***What, you don’t have a Favorites Shelf? I just don’t understand you.

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