With a Rerelease, V.E. Schwab’s Debut Novel The Near Witch Finally Gets Its Due

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Throughout her career, V.E. Schwab proven to have a keen grasp on the elements that make fantasy fascinating.

Inspired by the tropes of comic books, the Villains series churns with the malevolent energy of the antihero. The Shades of Magic trilogy focuses on scope—the story plays out across the challenging playground of four parallel Londons—but doesn’t leave behind character (we leave it to you to decide which element is responsible for all that amazing fanart). And the YA and middle-grade series she’s produced as Victoria Schwab likewise demonstrate her deftness with compelling paranormal (The Archived, Cassidy Blake) and urban (Monsters of Verity) fantasy.

All of this is already known. And all of it is present in her debut novel, The Near Witch, which gets a reissue this month after spending five years out of print. It’s a fantastic way to experience this nascent work from a future fantasy megastar, featuring a new introduction from the author and a prequel-of-sorts in the novelette The Ash-Born Boy. [Editor’s note: the Barnes & Noble exclusive edition also features a unique cover and map and a Q&A with Schwab.]

In The Near Witch, there are misty moors, vengeful winds, fairy-tale witches, and unexpected romance. It’s part Wuthering Heights, part Brothers Grimm, and 100 percent V.E. Schwab—even in this, her earliest published work, written when she was just 21 years old.

The novel unfolds slowly and deliberately across the rolling moors outside a town called Near, whose structures form a circle pointing inwards, and where strangers are unwelcome. (“There are no strangers in Near.”)

Here lives Lexi Harris, a young woman torn between who she is and who everyone else—particularly her close-minded uncle—wants her to be. Lexi is a tracker, a hunter, an all-around child of the moor, an identity largely carved from her late father’s teachings.

Lexi’s own “otherness,” her rejection of traditional femininity, puts her in a unique position when a mysterious stranger comes to town. Immediately, Lexi is drawn to this boy, whose novelty (everyone knows everyone in Near) finds a complement in the ephemerality of his appearances in and out of town.

But no sooner has the strange visitor arrived than the children of Near start disappearing in the night, leaving behind only unmade beds and open windows as evidence. Suspicion quickly turns to the outsider, and Lexi’s is soon the loudest—perhaps the only—voice shouting down the mob mentality that quickly seems to overtake her neighbors. Guided by deepening admiration for the stranger and the advice of two outcast witch-sisters, Dreska and Magda Thorne, Lexi delves into Near’s forgotten past to find the truth behind the mystery, and the real story behind the terrible legend of the Near Witch.

Concerned above all else with establishing a mood, The Near Witch is nostalgically foreboding. Situated in the sweet spot of the supernatural and the melancholy alongside works like The Ocean at the End of the Lane, it boasts the dark and inviting sensibilities of fairy tales.

Beyond its atmospheric qualities, this unassuming first novel speaks to modern issues of identity, gender, and, of course, the “other.” (For a starter kit on toxic masculinity, look no further than Lexi’s uncle Otto and his posse on the hunt for the stranger.) Schwab tackles these topics quietly, letting her characters speak for themselves—allowing them to show through their actions the nobility or repulsiveness of their causes.

All in all, this is a delicate, yet powerful novel that succeeds equally as either a journey back to the beginning or as a first tumble down the rabbit hole and into your next author obsession.

The B&N exclusive edition of The Near Witch, featuring a variant cover and map and a Q&A with the author, is available now.

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V.E. Schwab on the Birth, Disappearance and Return of The Near Witch

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

In 2011, The Near Witch appeared in bookstores—the debut novel by a young author named Victoria Schwab. Though it received some enthusiastic early reviews—and found devoted fans—it was quite unlike the books that were hitting the YA bestseller list at the time, and didn’t perform strongly enough to warrant the publication of a sequel. Within a few years, it had slipped quietly out of print, joining countless other first novels that didn’t quite find the readers they deserved.

But of course that is not the end of the story: Victoria Schwab kept writing, and after hitting a few more publishing speed bumps, in 2013 she was reborn as V.E. Schwab, the author of Vicious and A Darker Shade of Magic. These days, she writes regularly under both names (both Victoria and V.E. are New York Times bestselling authors), and has built—through blood, sweat, tears, and a little luck—the kind of fanbase she could’ve only dreamed about back in 2011. And now, Titan Books is poised to reintroduce The Near Witch to this new legion of readers who already know Victoria Schwab, and are eager to see where it all began.

On the eve of the release of the B&N exclusive edition of The Near Witch, we caught up with the author to discuss her baby days as a writer, meeting disappointment with determination, and the importance of writing for yourself.

According to your introduction in this new edition, The Near Witch was written while you were still in college, and just a wee baby writer. Do you remember what inspired you to write this story—especially given, as you say, it wasn’t exactly on-trend for what was big in YA at the time?
I do, vividly. I’m a magpie writer, gathering shiny things, bits and pieces of a story until I have enough to make something. I had two lines stuck in my head: “The wind on the moors is a tricky thing,” and “There are no strangers in the town of Near.”

Add to that a passion for fairy tales, a fascination with insider-outsider culture, a love of magic, and a desire to write a story where the setting served as a main character, and you get The Near Witch.

What happened along the book’s journey to publication? How did it compare to your expectations? 
The debut experience is always pretty inflated. Publishers are searching for the next shiny thing, and have a tendency to fetishize the new and debut, and every author wants to believe that theirs will be the book that makes the splash. Mine… didn’t. And I won’t lie and say it was easy. Even knowing that The Near Witch was a strange and rather quiet book, I wanted so badly to be enough. And I equated the novel’s success with my own validity, which never goes well.

What did your debut experience teach you about being a writer and getting published? How has your writing process changed since then?
One of the hardest lessons I learned was that you have to move forward, you have to keep going, and you have to remember that for the vast majority of writers, their careers are shaped by a body of work and not a single title. Of course, it’s difficult, in an industry where there is always something and someone new. But I decided that I was going to tell the kinds of stories I wanted to read, as strange and off-trend as they might be, and hope the right readers would find them.

After The Near Witch was released, you had no new books for more than a year—and then suddenly you seemed to be everywhere, with an adult novel and a YA novel released in the same year, a pace you’ve maintained (or bettered) basically ever since. What drives you to keep going?
That’s not exactly true. After The Near Witch, I had an 18-month gap, and then The Archived and The Unbound [currently available in an omnibus edition, The Dark Vault –ed.], books I love very, very much, and books that would serve to be a massive transition point in my early career. When they failed to make the mark the publisher wanted them to make (as I said, I write strange and askew, and sometimes that takes more time to ind its audience), I had two choices: to give up on publishing, or to find a way to be happy.

That’s really the moment I decided to write for myself, first and foremost, and that’s when everything changed. I wrote Vicious. And a series of work-for-hires for Scholastic, one a passion project and the other a way to keep myself in the game, and from there, A Darker Shade of Magic, which provided the first truly solid stones under my feet. As for what drives me, it’s the desire to prove early doubters wrong, and the need to challenge myself in different ways with every book. I never want to tell the same one twice.

You’ve talked a bit about this elsewhere, but can you discuss how you learned The Near Witch had gone out of print, and your reaction?
It’s not a pleasant piece of news. The thing about publishing is that, for a very long time, we were encouraged to smile. Always to smile. Talk about the good news, and never the bad. And what that does is, it makes an island out of every writer. It makes you feel so alone in whatever you’re going through. But the truth is, books go out of print. Authors hit hurdles, speed bumps, walls. It’s part of business we never like to mix with the art, but it’s there. And it’s hard. And the trick is to stay in it, so the successes balance out the failures.

How was the plan to get the book back into print initiated?
I really have Titan to thank for that. My UK publisher has been there, hand in hand with my US teams from the release of Vicious five and a half years ago. They’ve championed me in so many ways, and been a wonderful support system, so when The Near Witch rights reverted to me, Titan asked if they could take up the mantle, and do it justice. And they really have. The new edition is gorgeous, and thanks to their distribution channels, will be available on both sides of the Atlantic.

When is the last time you read the book? Do you reread your work generally?
The last time was when I was working on the sequel, The Dark Remains (it sits in a drawer somewhere, and it always will). That was back in 2011. I turned through parts of the book in 2012 while writing the novella The Ash-Born Boy, which is included in the new edition, but I haven’t read the book since. I get asked a lot if I ever considered updating it—revising to fit my current style/level of prose—but the truth is, I look at every one of my books as a time capsule of who I was, and what I was capable of, at [the time it was written]. I hope readers can see the strengths in this novel, as well as the fact I wrote it at 21, and that it serves as a starting point for every story that came after.

If you could give one piece of advice to the young writer who penned The Near Witch, what would it be?
Hang in there. And remember (to quote a good friend, Carrie Ryan), if you stay in this business long enough, everything that can happen will. The good and the bad.

What are your feelings on the weight debuts are given, especially in YA publishing? Can a debut really tell us anything about what a writer can do?
It really bothers me. I watch the pressure put on debuts, and the necessary inflation of egos, the promises made, and it just seems like 95 percent of the time, you’re setting the writer up for failure. Or at least, disappointment. The publishers expect so much, and the debut [authors] understand so little, and it’s not their fault. They believe what they’re being told. They want the business to mirror the art. I wish publishers would stop promising the stars. Building a readership takes time. It takes books. It takes luck. It takes patience, both on the part of the publisher and the author.

That being said, what are your most treasured debut novels as a reader?
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern; The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera; The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins; If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio—books that make me say, “How can this possibly be their debut???” Books that make so excited to see what the authors do next.

The Barnes & Noble exclusive edition of The Near Witch—featuring a variant cover, a new map, and a Q&A with the author—is available March 12.

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Iconic Outerwear of Science Fiction & Fantasy Literature, Ranked

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

When I graduated from Literary Analysis Academy, the dean stopped the graduation ceremony and shook my hand. “You are so smart,” he said, “that we’ve decided you’re the only one who gets to graduate this year.” He said that right in front of my academic rival, who was always really mean, but also good at a sport. Everyone clapped, and then I did a sick ollie as I skateboarded off the graduation stage. I’m not sharing this anecdote to brag; I’m sharing it so that you understand why I am especially qualified to speak to the relative qualities of selected pieces of outerwear in science fiction and fantasy literature. After several years of dedicated study, I have developed an unimpeachable scientific ranking of ten such articles of clothing.

Harry’s Invisibility Cloak
The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
When I was in grade school I would have given my right arm for a way to get through my day without anyone seeing me. But does this cloak really deserve to beat out all other forms of fantasy outerwear? I say no. It’s not water-resistant, it’s uninsulated, it doesn’t even have pockets. Don’t give me that “cloaks don’t usually have pockets?” business, either—if a garment is intended for adventuring, it should have a place for me to put my phone. No exceptions.

9. Dracula’s Opera Cloak
Dracula, by Bram Stoker
Okay, one exception. This cloak doesn’t turn Dracula invisible, and you might think that means the invisibility cloak should beat it in the ranking. But this cloak does enhance Dracula’s power of Being Extremely Dramatique, which is so much more important than invisibility. It is, like, the opposite. The only things that can take Dracula down: a crucifix, a box of garlic knots, and a boring evening look.

8. Katniss’ Hunting Jacket
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
It might not be magical, but this baby is the dream-jacket of revolutionaries everywhere. It’s got sad Dad-memories attached, just like the invisibility cloak, but it’s warm and it has pockets. It’s also too big, which is a huge bonus as far as jackets go, because you can hide a lot of stuff in there, from rabbits, to lamps, to love triangles.

7. Elven Cloaks
The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkein
These things are great. They’re warm but breathable—like good yoga pants—and they color-shift better than hypercolor shirts. Plus, each cloak comes with a special Fancy Brooch. Outerwear that comes with accessories? Absolutely. But they stay low in the rankings because they also don’t have any pockets. (I don’t know where my old pal Jolkein Rolkein Rolkein Tolkein thought elves kept their crumpled-up CVS receipts… those things are like two feet long!) These cloaks are attractive and almost-practical, but without pockets, they stay toward the bottom of the heap.

6. Sophie’s Hats
Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones
These hats are nice. They’re good listeners, and they make people look cute. Each hat is like a big pocket for your head. No further questions.

5. Harry Dresden’s Duster
The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher
It’s not inherently magical, but it is enchanted, which is neat. There are limits on the enchantment, though, and listen: I’m just not wild on dusters. Tailor that thing. Give me a silhouette, Harry Dresden. Pair it with a statement belt. Take a risk.

4. John Constantine’s Trenchcoat
Hellblazer, by Alan Moore
So much better than a duster. This thing is resilient as heck, plus it does great swooshy flourishes, plus it has demonic powers. A coat that’s water-resistant and can drive people into a mindless rage? It’s already on back-order. Also, it has pockets. Sit down and take notes, invisibility cloak.

3. The Sorting Hat
Harry Potter, again
I do not trust this hat, not even a little. It is a terrifying omnidimensional creature of fathomless intelligence. Why does it work at Hogwarts? Why does it sow merciless division between children? Why is it so interested in, y’know, shaping the fates of every magical child in Britain?? Extra points, though, because it can somehow store and produce legendary weaponry at the drop of a… well. Who needs a mysterious lady in a lake to give you a magic sword, when you have an eldritch abomination that’s also a hat?

Hagrid’s Coat
Harry Potter, ibid.
Now we’re talkin’. I know Harry Potter is disproportionately represented on this list, but I can’t overlook this beat, because she is all pockets. It’s got enough pockets to fit a whole picnic in it, plus a live owl, an entire birthday cake, cash, and booze. It’s like the purse you take with you on vacations, except that it’s also warm and it won’t give you back problems. It’s made of moleskin, which is soft as heck. The invisibility cloak could never. What a role model.

Kell’s Coat
A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab
OMNI-COAT. This thing is the dream: it can turn inside-out a zillion times, and although the text claims that not every version of the coat is fashionable, every single one of them sounds fashionable. There’s a lot of black and red and silver, as is appropriate for the Shades of Magic series, and several offer high collars. It’s a good coat for brooding in, and also for traveling between dimensions, and also for adventures. Every version of the coat has pockets, as far as I can tell, and some of the versions even have extra-deep pockets. Bonus points because the coat canonically has opinions and doesn’t work for everyone. I relate.

Pockets!

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