Monday, 28 March 2011
THE NEAR WITCH BY VICTORIA SCHWAB
"The Near Witch is only an old story told to frighten children.
If the wind calls at night, you must not listen. The wind is lonely, and always looking for company.
And there are no strangers in the town of Near.
These are the truths that Lexi has heard all her life.
But when an actual stranger—a boy who seems to fade like smoke—appears outside her home on the moor at night, she knows that at least one of these sayings is no longer true.
The next night, the children of Near start disappearing from their beds, and the mysterious boy falls under suspicion. Still, he insists on helping Lexi search for them. Something tells her she can trust him.
As the hunt for the children intensifies, so does Lexi’s need to know—about the witch that just might be more than a bedtime story, about the wind that seems to speak through the walls at night, and about the history of this nameless boy.
Part fairy tale, part love story, Victoria Schwab’s debut novel is entirely original yet achingly familiar: a song you heard long ago, a whisper carried by the wind, and a dream you won’t soon forget."
The first thing that everyone will have to agree about THE NEAR WITCH is how extremely well written it is, especially for a debut. Ms Schwab utilizes narrator Lexie's viewpoint on the world she occupies to bring the village of Near and the surrounding moor to startling life. Lexie knows and loves the moor so deeply that her love shines from every page. Near and its moors are the true protagonist of the story.
As soon as you begin to read, the colours and textures of Lexie's world envelop you like falling into a dream of calling birds, muted grey skies, the patter of rain against window panes, the rise and fall of the wind, the smell of moist dirt and baking bread, the feel of rough stone under your palms. As a nature lover and someone who has roamed many moors and visited many small moor towns, I adored them. I wanted to stay on Lexie's moors forever. Not if the Near Witch was there at the same time, mind you. The thrill of sheer, atavistic terror that shivered down my back as she appeared for the first time was priceless to me. It's been a while since something creeped me out quite that thoroughly.
Part of THE NEAR WITCH's hypnotic style is the slow and dreamy rate at which the plot unfolds. I think some people might complain about this (people always complain about non-standard storytelling) but I really appreciated the fact that information is never dumped on the reader. I'm delighted that publishers are willing to buy books like this - books that hark back to Patricia McKillip or Robin McKinley's early books in their depth and subtlety. Everything you need to know to work out the mystery is woven throughout in the form of songs and stories, fragments of lost knowledge which gleam in Lexie's mind like like polished stones, only catching the light at certain moments, as the larger part of her attention is focussed on her own worries and secrets. Again, I loved this - I never wanted to hurry the story along, and I was enchanted by the original folkloric elements of the story.
I also enjoyed the characterisation of the people of Near very much, because it too was low-key and gentle, provided through glimpses - a frightening smile, a comforting frown, a touch that lingered too long or never came. The everyday cruelty and kindness of the people of Near was solid and real, and I saw myself and my neighbours reflected there.
And just as the rest of the story is gentle and muted, so is the development of the romance between Lexie and the stranger, Cole, who arrives in town just as the children of Near begin to disappear from their beds at night. The slow, believable change of Lexie's emotions from mere curiosity and suspicion about the stranger, to caring and sympathy for Cole, and finally to love and acceptance of him with all his quirks and his sorrowful past, is just LOVELY. I'm so sick of reading insta-love stories, honestly - actually seeing someone fall in love is a really refreshing change!
Having said all that, I don't think that THE NEAR WITCH is perfect, and I did have some quibbles with the story. Most of the time Ms Schwab's ear for her non-specific historial period was extremely good - which made it all the more obvious when anachronism crept in. One example was Lexie's often stated desire to 'mess up' her sister's sleek hair. That's not really a phrase that trips easily off an English tongue even today - most people that I know would be far more likely to say 'make a mess of' or 'untidy'. It was also strange to meet with the assumption that a country woman would be expected to wear 'slippers' instead of boots, or would be told off for chopping wood. Those are the sort of things an aristocratic girl might have to worry about, not a hardy, hard-working village girl.
There was a strange sense of isolation about the town of Near. I know part of this was deliberate, but I couldn't help asking myself - where does the wood come from? They're living on a moor with only a few distant stands of trees, so why aren't they burning peat? Lexie's mother bakes bread for the entire village each morning - where does the flour come from, since there's no mention of any of the villagers tending fields of wheat or corn, and no mill (a village of Near's size would be unlikely to have a mill anyway). Where do the tea and coffee come from? The Near villagers react with shock and fear to the presence of a stranger, but SOME strangers must be coming into the village, to bring these supplies, or else some of the villagers are leaving to bring them back (is there a road out of Near?). I know most readers won't notice these details, but I'm a high fantasy writer and these are the sorts of omissions which DO bother me. On the other hand, THE NEAR WITCH is far more of a fairytale than a high fantasy, and in that case there's little point trying to apply high fantasy world-building rules. The sense of self-containment in the little settlement certainly added to the spookiness at certain points, and I can't say that any of this really detracted from my enjoyment of THE NEAR WITCH all that much.
THE NEAR WITCH is an enchanting debut novel from very talented young author. In many ways, reading it felt like experiencing a strange dream that I had long ago and almost forgot. I cannot wait to get my hands on her next book. I've already ordered this one through The Book Depository, as I received an eGalley for review through NetGalley. I want that gorgeous cover for myself. Highly recommended.