Author: Alix E. Harrow
Release date: 15 October 2020
Publisher: Redhook (US), Orbit (UK)
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
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.
True to its name, The Once and Future Witches carries a unique, witchy charm within a dark yet hopeful quest for the return of witchcraft – and in turn, power to fight harder for women’s rights against an oppressive, ignorant, and misogynistic society.
Set in the Progressive Era of the 1890s America, women and women’s organizations start to call for the right to vote, broad-based economic and political equality, and social reforms. Hidden in the shadows is the pitiful remains of witchcraft, women-witching having been reduced to nothing more but a collection of stories, and twisted to be perceived as wicked, vile things. Set in the centre stage are the three sisters, reunited through a public, mysterious act of witching in New Salem who now seek to transform the women’s movement to the witches’ movement.
The Once and Future Witches is a rich and lushly written book, with its lyrical and accessible prose immediately lulling me towards the intrigue schemes the women concoct throughout the book. Adding to her beautiful, atmospheric prose-work, Harrow masterfully concocts a complex world in which the inclusion of real, told fairy tales with some twists grant weight and relevance to this alternate, magical world. Not only does this allow her to build a unique basis for the witchcraft in this world, it also allows her to foreshadow certain plot points as multiple pieces of the puzzle come together.
The Virtue of Patience
Although it is important to note that the slow pace Harrow sets may not work for some readers due to its painstaking nature, it is also important to acknowledge that it also made her careful, intricate storytelling possible to accomplish. The pacing provides much space and breathing room for important key hints to be subtly and carefully placed, allowing for greatly cathartic emotional pay-off with a combustive finale.
Vivid, Distinctive, and Well-realised Characters
This story is primarily character-driven and the strength it draws is that the character developments are well-realised – also an added benefit of Harrow’s pacing. The sisters each have a distinctive personality and voice that enables us to get an intimate look to how differently they see the world, how their abuse at the hands of their father had shaped them in different ways; and how their damaged, yet slowly healing bond is repeatedly tested in their quest.
The Women of the Story
Harrow also manages to portray the historical experience of pain and injustice suffered by women in the 1890’s America with much accuracy and sensitivity. We see the suffrage of women’s movement to witches’ movement evolving into a much larger, more fundamental cause as growingly liberal interpretation and handling of witchcraft shed light on how society really thought of women at the time, thus highlighting the necessity of the movement.
Packing much deliberation and carefully placed elements as its main storytelling strength, Alix E. Harrow’s The Once and Future Witches manages to weave a beautifully haunting, intricate tapestry best fit to tell the tale of sisterhood, justice, and the much, much righteous female rage.
Many thanks to NetGalley, Orbit, and Little, Brown Book Group UK for providing an e-ARC of this book for an honest review.