“There are no strangers in the town of Near.” That is, until the night Lexi sees a strange boy outside her window — one who seems to have uncanny abilities. Then, Pied-Piper-style, the children of Near begin to disappear, lured away by a song. Lexi, as an adolescent, can only hear broken snatches of the song. But her little sister is vulnerable to it. The whole town seems convinced that the strange boy is the kidnapper, but Lexi thinks the disappearances are tied to the legend of the Near Witch, who lived and died in Near long ago but is remembered in tales and songs.
Victoria Schwab writes beautifully and perfectly evokes the blustery weather on the moors and the xenophobia of the town of Near, where any stranger or nonconformist is automatically suspect. Schwab makes the interesting decision to leave the time period hazy. We don’t know what year it is, and it could be anytime after the invention of guns. There aren’t enough clothing details to pin it down, or even transportation details — the town is so small that everyone just walks everywhere. It adds to the sense of a place that rarely changes. In Near, this story could have happened two hundred years ago, or just last week.
When thinking about the prose, the strongest impression I get is that of “almost.” Schwab excels at describing what is almost seen, almost heard, almost felt: the sound of a song you can’t quite hear, or the tentative brush of a hand in the beginning stages of flirtation.
The middle sags a bit; Lexi continually sneaks out to look for clues, and these expeditions get a little repetitive as well as frustrating because her sister might be better served by a different course of action. But as the book builds toward its climax, it’s suspenseful and scary. The climactic scene is almost over too quickly, but it works, and the ending is satisfying. (And if you’re wondering, The Near Witch is a standalone.)
Overall, The Near Witch is enjoyable, with a spooky atmosphere, haunting folklore, and a bit of romance. It also gets points from me for being so different from the rest of the current YA books. If you like novels that are heavy on mood and imagery, and you are OK with a bit of slowness in the plot, The Near Witch may be for you.