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!

Shelf Control #152: Swimming Home by Mary-Rose MacColl

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!


Title: Swimming Home
Author: Mary-Rose MacColl
Published: 2015
Length: 432 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

From the author of the international bestseller In Falling Snow. In 1925, a young woman swimmer will defy the odds to swim the English Channel–a chance to make history. 

London 1925: Fifteen-year-old Catherine Quick longs to feel once more the warm waters of her home, to strike out into the ocean off the Torres Strait Islands in Australia and swim, as she’s done since she was a child. But now, orphaned and living with her aunt Louisa in London, Catherine feels that everything she values has been stripped away from her.

Louisa, a London surgeon who fought boldly for equality for women, holds strict views on the behavior of her young niece. She wants Catherine to pursue an education, just as she herself did. Catherine is rebellious, and Louisa finds it difficult to block painful memories from her past. It takes the enigmatic American banker Manfred Lear Black to convince Louisa to bring Catherine to New York where Catherine can train to become the first woman to swim the English Channel. And finally, Louisa begins to listen to what her own heart tells her.

How and when I got it:

I bought it back in 2015, right after finishing another book by this author.

Why I want to read it:

My book group read In Falling Snow by Mary-Rose MacColl in 2015, and I was really captivated by the subject matter — women staffing a field hospital during World War I. Swimming Home sounds like yet another great woman-centric historical novel. Reading about a pioneering female swimmer really appeals to me!

What do you think? Would you read this book?


Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!














Book Review: Vox by Christina Dalcher

Set in an America where half the population has been silenced, VOX is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter.

On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than 100 words daily, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial—this can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her.

This is just the beginning.

Soon women can no longer hold jobs. Girls are no longer taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words a day, but now women only have one hundred to make themselves heard.

But this is not the end.

For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice.

Vox is a look at a United States where the government has been taken over — not by force, but by the power of the voting booth. A magnetic leader of the Christian right has rallied his followers to vote for his puppet candidate, and suddenly, the US government is in the hands of people who very much want to restore the country to a time when women stayed home, cared for their families, and were seen but not heard.

AP science classes in high school are replaced by AP Religious Studies, focusing on Christian philosophy. Boys and girls are educated separately, with girls’ studies focusing on home economics and basic math — just enough to be able to run a household, not enough to actually encourage higher thinking or learning.

Most insidious of all, all females in the population are fitted with metal counters on their wrists, tracking their allotment of 100 words per day. Woe betide the woman who talks in her sleep! Every utterance counts. And if you exceed your daily allotment, you receive a nasty little reminder by way of electric shock.

We view this warped world through the eyes of Dr. Jean McClellan, an esteemed neurolinguist who, like all professional women, is denied her work, her money, and her independence. She’s reliant on her husband for everything, and even her jerky teen-aged son has more autonomy than she does, spouting off his anti-woman rhetoric that he’s so quickly absorbed through the poisoned atmosphere of school.

It’s a compelling and intriguing set-up, and the writing keeps the plot move along at a fast pace. While the book focuses on the awfulness of this society and the punishments meted out to those who dare bend or break the rules, it’s quite chilling. The story becomes less compelling in the final third, as the tone shifts more to scientific thriller and away from the greater societal upheavals at play.

I found the premise mostly implausible. I’ve read several of these types of books by now, and the key to making me believe in them is in providing enough information to make the world of the book feel real and possible. Vox fails to truly establish how we got from our current society to the society of the book in just one year. How exactly did the people in charge come up with the counters and get them installed on all women? How did they manage to enforce the new society so quickly and with so little opposition? There isn’t enough backstory here to make me believe in it, and that ended up being an obstacle for me in terms of getting fully engaged in the story.

Vox is a gripping read, and it tries very hard to be topical and timely, a warning for our age and a call to action. Look, it seems to say — stand up now and be heard, or face a future where you may have no voice at all. Yes, being heard and taking a stand are worthy messages to put out there, but the lack of foundation in Vox makes the actual threat feel too shadowy and unbelievable.


The details:

Title: Vox
Author: Christina Dalcher
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: August 21, 2018
Length: 326 pages
Genre: Dystopian fiction
Source: Library












Book Review: The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters

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.


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.


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