Book Review: The Near Witch, by Victoria Schwab

August 17, 2011 at 9:00 am (Book Reviews) (, , , )

“The wind on the moors is a tricky thing. It whispers and it howls and it sings. It can bend its voice and cast it into any shape, long and thin enough to slide benath the door, stout enough to seem a thing of weight and breath and bone.”
Lexi has grown up falling asleep to the voice of the wind over the moors, sure of the language that speaks just beyond her ability to comprehend. Isolated within the barren expanse, Near has forgotten too much of its own history, consigned it to legend that should never have been left behind. But then a stranger comes to town, an unheard of event that heralds a string of disappearances. As Near tracks down the stranger to blame him for the missing children, Lexi seeks answers within the moors themselves.

There are some books that come off as much poetry as prose, where the descriptions linger in our minds long after the page is turned or the cover is closed. This is absolutely one of those books. Lexi’s words are a love song to the moor, full of the caution afforded to any living thing with a myriad of dangers, full of an exquisite awareness of the beauty and the fear and the admiration the moor evokes. She has her father’s appreciation for the half-incomprehensible language of the moor, for the tracks that whisper secrets for those with the eyes and ears to know them. The moor comes alive within the words, more than mere atmosphere or setting. There are times when the description, lovely as it is, bogs things down, but this book is a tribute to the beauty of language, and leaves haunting images that whisper in your ears as you fall asleep and paint stark pictures across your dreams.

The relationship between Lexi, her little sister Wren, and their mother owes a great deal to the relationship of the Everdeen women in The Hunger Games albeit with some softer edges. The sisterhood between Lexi and Wren is a beautiful thing, full of devotion and cute rituals, and most of all a sense of trust and protectiveness. I think it would have been better served if Wren had been just a little bit older- at the age of five, she seems just a little young for some of her insights. She’s sweet and all things worth protecting, but sometimes a little too wise for a five-year-old. At first their mother seems as much a ghost from her husband’s death as Mrs. Everdeen, but slowly- carefully- she shows her hidden strength and her willingness to protect her daughters. She just has to do it in a way that doesn’t promptly put them in danger from her brother-in-law’s boorishness.

Speaking of the brother-in-law, Otto Harris was, for me, an incredibly interesting character. Our perception is colored by Lexi’s, given the first person narration, but there are flashes that she doesn’t particularly pay attention to, flashes that speak to much more of Otto than she’s been willing to see. He’s definitely a boor. He’s chauvanistic, domineering, over-protective, dismissive, contemptuous, but– sometimes you can see the genuine need to protect the family his brother left behind, the need to make sure they’re taken care of. Every now and then, you can actually see how much he cares for Lexi, even as she infuriates him. With just a few more fine-drawn lines in his character, he could easily have stolen the show for me.

Tyler? Tyler’s a douche. Enough said.

I love the Thorne sisters. They complement each other beautifully, with Magda’s softness and Dreska’s prickly sharp edges. Their speech patterns overlap, an overlapping, eerie rhythm that somehow stays more comforting than creepy, the spoken version of the Near Witch’s song and the endless, shifting murmur of the moor. They’re a piece of things, as much so as the wind and the barren soil and the rocks and heather that surround the town. The more we learn about them- a slow process, given the sedentary nature of those within the town- the more interesting and dynamic they become.

I would have loved to know more of Cole. He’s intriguing, someone as fascinating and capricious as the winds over the moor, someone we slowly fall in love with. I would have loved to know more about him, more about his history, but to speak more about him threatens some spoilers, so we’ll just leave it as: Cole is an amazing foil to Lexi’s.

By far my favorite character was the wind, and it absolutely is its own living force and personality. It reflects every aspect of human nature, wraps through the thoughts of the readers and shivers down the spine. It grows on its own, forces the other characters to interact and grow, both creates and eases the obstacles towards finding the missing children. It haunts and it whispers and it teases and it seduces, beautiful and mysterious. I love books that allow specific pieces of the setting to become breathing characters in their own right (like the town of Olive in Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls)because it twines the story and characters through the atmosphere until it becomes genuinely inextricable.

There’s a peculiar sense of timelessness with this, as well as a disorientation. We don’t know when or where this is happening, which sometimes adds to it- increases the overall claustrophobic feeling of just how isolated and tradition-bound Near is- but also sometime distracts, given that we have absolutely no idea how to anchor it to anything. Near is the only indicator of location. We hear of the town Cole came from but not its name, and that’s the only indication that anything at all exists beyond the town of Near and its moors. Like I said, sometimes I really liked it, thought it added a great deal, but I would have wished for just one or two hints so I could dismiss the question (Then again, I’m a somewhat strange person).

This is a book to savor. I think I would have had a very hard time picking it up and putting it down for little things like stages of cooking or parts of a string of errands. This is a book to take with you to bed. Turn out all the lights but one, so the darkness presses against the windows, and feel the drafts from the ceiling fan or air conditioner and wonder in the pauses as you turn the pages whether it’s the wind trying to speak to you. This is a book that keeps you up long past your bedtime and folds around you with the comforting, slightly unsettling knowledge that sweeps over the moors.

The Near Witch, by Victoria Schwab, out in stores now.

Until next time~

(Don’t forget, check out my Cover Love post to win a copy of Lauren Oliver’s Liesl & Po)

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