December 02, 2011
Reader Gut Reaction: Long, long ago... This novel has so much of the feel of a fairytale that I was pleasantly shocked. It's rare that you get a new fairytale. Retellings are a dime-a-dozen practically, but it takes skill to put together something that feels like it's been simmering in culture and oral tradition for a few hundred years. This novel crosses that hurdle with aplomb. Gothic and dark, but with a lyrical tone, this is a story-within-a-story. It starts with a bedtime tale, a tale told generally to frighten small children, but plunges into the heart of the entire village, and takes every character with it.
Concerning Character: First of all, the village of Near itself is a character. It is moody and desolate, sparsely peopled with some who have been there for what seems to have been thousands of years. The Moors are a character - mysterious and trackless, and unknowable - forbidden and scary.
Lexi is her father's daughter - stepping into his heavy, worn boots, strapping his whetted knife around her sturdy waist. She is a Hunter and a tracker, with not much to hunt or track. Her uncle takes care of the family now, and his care is more a shepherding, a driving her in, toward the center of town, toward known things, acceptable boys, and respectability. He has all but promised that if she does not embrace these things, those she loves - her baby sister, Wren, her mother, her home - will be forever taken from her.
Lexi's mother is a shadow of her former self; as her Uncle becomes more imposing, her mother fades away. Lexi is desperate to find her mother again - and to push back her Uncle's influence on their lives. There needs to be a change - even though no one and nothing much ever changes in the village of Near...
The change, when it comes, is everything Lexi desires, and nothing anyone would have ever wanted.
Recommended for Fans Of...: Jane Yolen's Pay the Piper, or Donna Jo Napoli's Breath and other fairytale retellings wherein A Great Wrong is done to a witch, and the whole village has to suffer until they atone.
Themes & Things: The night Lexi sees the Stranger, things begin to shift irredeemably within. She is unstoppably curious about someone she doesn't know. Who is he? Why has he come? More importantly, why hasn't anyone new ever come along? Why are there no other strangers?
There's an entire history of secrets and lies and things forgotten which haunt this village. A Hunter can find out the truth -- but only if she's allowed to hunt. Themes of self-reliance and standing up for the truth, and for those who are different give this novel a strong backbone.
Cover Chatter: From the author's descriptions, you can almost see the village of Near, its low, encircling wall and the desolate moor. It's very atmospheric, infintely moreso than the cover. While Lexi at the window is a common enough scene from the novel, and the overlay of vining flowers is possibly representative of the witch's garden, the female-teen-with-sheer-curtains (Bad Girls Don't Die, Witchlanders) has been done fairly repeatedly. It's not a bad cover by any means, but the novel contained within is certainly better.
You can find THE NEAR WITCH at an independent bookstore near you!