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