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 Cure for Dreaming

Cure for DreamingIn this YA novel, hypnotism and the suffrage movement are combined in startling ways to give us a portrait of life in 1900 for a young woman who is, pretty much literally, too independent for her own good.

On her 17th birthday, Olivia Mead attends a hypnotism show headlined by the young, talented Henri Reverie, a “mesmerist” whose talents have made him famous across the country. Egged on by her friends, Olivia volunteers to be Henri’s first subject, and astonishes the entire audience by her extreme susceptibility to his hypnotism. She’s so far under that he’s able to make her stiff as a board, suspend her between two chairs (as in the cover photo), and even stand on her torso, all without her knowledge.

Olivia is slightly embarrassed, but also enjoys the newfound attention her moment in the spotlight brings, especially from wealthy, out-of-her-reach Percy, the judge’s son. Olivia’s own father, the local dentist (with a truly horrifying collection of tools), is less than pleased. He wants nothing more than for Olivia to be good and obedient, especially after learning that she’d attended a suffragists’ rally the day before. He arranges for a private hypnotism session with Henri, during which Henri compels Olivia to see the world as it truly is, to understand the roles of men and women, and to be able to say nothing but “all is well” when she becomes angry.

This backfires, of course. Olivia is an avid fan of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and thanks to the hypnotism, when she looks at her father, she sees him as he truly is — fanged, clawed, and monstrous. She sees the truth of many of the women of her town as well, who fade into invisibility as Olivia watches. Desperate, she tracks down Henri and begs him to fix her — but there’s a reason why he can’t just yet, and the two form a scheme to give Olivia back control of her own mind and voice and to get Henri what he desperately needs.

The Cure For Dreaming is a captivating portrait of the plight of women at the dawn of the 20th century. The author does a wonderful job of weaving together an individual’s personal struggles with the struggles of women at that time. It’s easy for us, sitting here in the comforts of 2015, to take for granted the rights we enjoy, and this book reminds us of the venom and hostility that confronted the women’s suffrage movement. The women who dared to take a public stance and speak out were demonized, ridiculed, accused of being unwomanly or even insane, and were subjected to all sorts of horrible public humiliations. In this book, looking through Olivia’s eyes, we see how far the men — and even many women — were willing to go to silence the voices of women who stood up for equality and the right to speak their minds.

As one character describes to Olivia:

“My father leaned over to me and said, “Now, that’s womanhood perfected, Percy my boy. That’s the type of girl you want. Silent. Alluring. Submissive.”

I can’t say enough about how powerful and engrossing this story is. Olivia is a marvelous lead character — smart, warm-hearted, and unwilling to keep silent when she sees something wrong. Her need to speak out is what gets her into trouble, of course, but at the same time, she makes a difference in all sorts of unexpected ways, even when forced through the power of hypnotic compulsion to be compliant and stifle her anger.

Olivia’s interactions with Henri do not take the anticipated route, and despite the growing feelings between the two, this book does not go down the dreaded path of showing a young woman throwing away her own plans in order to follow a guy. Olivia has a backbone and a commitment to staying true to herself, and that’s a lovely thing to see in a YA heroine.

The book itself is wonderful to page through, as chapter breaks are illustrated by historical photos from the book’s era, as well as by a selection of powerful quotes by everyone from Kate Chopin to Mark Twain to Carrie Nation.

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The Cure for Dreaming is a fast read — I gobbled it up over the course of 24 hours! I was hooked almost instantly, and just couldn’t bear to put the book down. The characters are well-drawn, the subject of hypnotism is fascinating, the relationships between the characters are pitch-perfect, and the context of the fight for women’s votes and the right to one’s own voice is powerfully presented. While written for a young adult audience, the book does not oversimplify or talk down in any way. As an adult reader, I loved the book and was never bored. This would be a great choice for teen girls, and could also provide some great discussion starting points for mothers and daughters who want a book they can share and enjoy together.

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The details:

Title: The Cure for Dreaming
Author: Cat Winters
Publisher: Amulet
Publication date: October 14, 2014
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library