Book Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Title: The Once and Future Witches
Author: Alix E. Harrow
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: October 13, 2020
Length: 528 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the Eastwood sisters–James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna–join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.

Alix E. Harrow’s debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, was one of my favorite reads last year, so it’s a pleasure to have another amazing experience with her newest book, The Once and Future Witches.

The Once and Future Witches takes place in 1893, in a world similar to our own, but with some key differences. Chief among these is the history of witchcraft — a plague and a purge some years earlier have resulted in the complete annihilation of witches or witchcraft, or so the men in power would like people to believe.

While the knowledge and power of witches seem to be lost, grandmothers and mothers still pass down to their daughters the little words and ways that make life easier, from simple spells to help with cleaning or harvest to healing rituals and ways to escape from someone who means you ill. In this world, what we’d call fairy tales are known as witch tales, and they’re regarded as simple folklore, merely children’s entertainment. But for the women who tell the stories, they know there’s something more hidden in the simple words and songs.

Our main characters are the three Eastwood sisters — Beatrice Belladonna, Agnes Amaranth, and James Juniper. While raised on a family farm, they now as adults find themselves drawn together in the town of New Salem after a long separation caused by their abusive father.

When the three sisters are reunited, Bella inadvertently triggers a momentary return of the lost ways, creating both a public scare and an inspiration for women who long for more. The story is set at a time when women are rallying for the right to vote, and workers’ rights are also front and center in the wake of awful mill and factory conditions and the abject poverty of New Salem’s underclass.

The Eastwood sisters soon lead a growing underground movement of women who are willing to risk everything to rediscover their own power and make a place for themselves in their world. But there are forces working against them, who will use whatever means necessary to silence their voices and make sure they keep to their approved places.

This is a powerful, uplifting, and complicated read. At over 500 pages, the story is intricate, with ample detail on the world of New Salem, the sisters’ histories, the witch-tales handed down, and the allies and friends they make in the battle for their rights and their lives. The writing is beautiful, with magical realism in its imagery mixed with the brutality of the slums and factories and the tired lives of the women looking for more.

I love how the quest to reclaim witchcraft melds so well with the fight for the vote, for equal rights and better working conditions. The characters here are distinct and memorable — upright librarian Bella and her unexplored passions, independent Agnes and her devotion to protecting what’s hers, Juniper with her fierce, feral nature and her readiness to fight. The sisters are amazing, as are the other women (and one man) who populate their story.

Likewise, the relationships between the sisters is gorgeously depicted. There is a lifetime’s worth of hurt and betrayal and resentment between them, but beneath all that, there’s also the bonds of sisterhood and love. As truths emerge that shed light on misconceptions about their shared pasts, they have to deal with their bitterness and pain in order to wage their fight for power and freedom.

I can’t say enough good things about The Once and Future Witches. It has to be read and experienced to really get what it’s all about. While it took me a few tries to get past the early chapters, I think that was mostly due to my distracted mind rather than the book itself. Once I shut out the world and really focused, I just couldn’t put it down.

A perfect October read. Don’t miss it!

Book Review: The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends that come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook’s differences are impossible to ignore. The Island of Sea Women is an epoch set over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War and its aftermath, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and she will forever be marked by this association. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that after surviving hundreds of dives and developing the closest of bonds, forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

This beautiful, thoughtful novel illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge, engaging in dangerous physical work, and the men take care of the children. A classic Lisa See story—one of women’s friendships and the larger forces that shape them—The Island of Sea Women introduces readers to the fierce and unforgettable female divers of Jeju Island and the dramatic history that shaped their lives.

The Island of Sea Women is a gorgeous, though-provoking, emotionally powerful read. We first meet Young-sook as an old woman on the beach in Jeju in 2008, thinking back on her life and feeling somewhat amused by the tourists who now flock to her island, viewing the elders of the haenyeo diving women as a living piece of history and a novelty. When she is approached by a visiting family who seem to know who she is, Young-sook is thrust back into her long-ago memories.

We’re reintroduced to Young-sook as a 15-year-old in 1938, about to embark on her first real dive with the haenyeo collective led by her mother. In Jeju, women support their families through their diving, while the men tend the children and the home. It’s an unusual matriarchy that suits the lives of the islanders. The women are strong physically and mentally, worrying about providing for their families, and gossiping about needing to care for their men and children. The diving offers sustenance and independence, but also presents very real dangers to the women, as Young-sook learns on her very first day.

Danger also comes from the Japanese colonial presence and the constant threat that hangs over the Korean population. The end of the war brings new sorts of danger, as the division of Korea results in danger from the military rulers and right-wing government.

Meanwhile, Young-sook and her best friend Mi-ja grow up together, close as sisters, until their adult lives as married women and mothers starts forcing them apart. Something terrible happens to cause a permanent rift, but we don’t discover the awful events until about midway through the book.

I really don’t want to disclose too many of the plot points, so I’ll leave my remarks pretty brief. This book was fascinating. I knew very little about Korean history before reading The Island of Sea Women, and I certainly had never heard about the haenyeo. The culture of the haenyeo is so amazing to learn about — even without the captivating characters and their stories, the story of the divers and their lives kept me completely engrossed.

Add to that a powerful story of friendship, family, love, obligation, and betrayal, as well as sharply drawn depictions of people who feel real, and you have a book that’s absolutely worth reading, and very, very memorable.

I highly recommend The Island of Sea Women, both for fans of historical fiction as well as anyone who enjoys poignant, emotionally rich stories about remarkable people. And if you’re not familiar with the haenyeo of Jeju, or want to learn more about them, check out this video for starters:


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The details:

Title: The Island of Sea Women
Author: Lisa See
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: March 5, 2019
Length: 374 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley