Title: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
Publication date: 13 October 2020
Genre: Adult | Fantasy
Page extent: 528 pages
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.
The Once and Future Witches was my first foray into Harrow’s lyrical, poetic prose, as I haven’t read her debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. I don’t always have the best time with this kind of prose, I tend to either love it or hate it. But in The Once and Future Witches, I loved it and I’m very excited to read Harrow’s debut now as well!
The Once and Futute Witches is set during 1893 suffragette America, where three sisters who have been seperated by time and betrayal, meet again when a spell that makes an old tower appear in the middle of New Salem pulls them together. The three sisters end up embroiled in a quest to bring back magic that will allow women to stand up to the world that has pushed them so far down.
It’s difficult to know where to start with this beautiful book. The prose was just wonderful: so haunting and so full of imagery, it just completely envelops you. Despite the heavy detail and poetic prose, which can sometimes really slow down a book, it didn’t feel slow at all. This prose just sucked me in and I wanted to stay reading this book for hours at a time. It’s very reminiscent of Erin Morgenstern’s work, who has the same ability to create this delicate, beautiful language that makes you never want to leave.
One of my favourite things about this world was the history regarding the magic. In order to stay hidden, magic is passed down through “women’s things”: children’s nursery rhymes, fairytale stories, sewn into fabric. Each chapter starts with a spell, many of which will be familiar, twists on different rhymes we may have heard. Alongside these spells, there are occasional breaks for short fairytales that really help add to the sense of beauty and magic in this book, alongside a sense of darkness that comes with the original fairytales.
Are the three main characters a little one dimensional? Yes. James, the youngest sister, is the wild, uncontrollable one; Beatrice, the old crone obsessed with books and knowledge; and Agnes the beautiful warrior mother. They are a little surface level, I felt like Agnes was the only one that really got to explore her personality a bit more. She has a bit more depth as the sister who isn’t fully on board with bringing back witches, as the one who is deep set in her bitterness at the betrayal years ago, and so I found her journey more interesting than the others.
What I loved most about the characters in this book is not therefore the three sisters. Instead, it’s the small, insightful moments we get with the host of secondary characters in this world. To me, this is where the emotion and heart of this book really sang. There was such a depth of emotion in such small moments that really touched me, and really emphasised this fight to defeat the darkness of men. There’s Jeannie, the trans woman too scared to tell her friends she’s trans until the end of the book when she reveals her shorn head inflicted on her by the prison system, who clenched her fists in meetings as the women talked about the uselessness of men’s magic, when it was the only kind she knew. There’s the moment when Mr Lee, his face radiant and fierce, stands as the only barrier between Agnes and men who seek to burn her. There’s Cleo Quinn, Beatrice’s love interest, a Black journalist who in a moment of absolute power stuns you with her sharp words that the Black people living in New Cairo, her people, are always the ones to suffer most for others’ fights. It is these small moments and glimpses into these other characters lives that felt the most powerful to me.
Incidentally, it is these secondary characters lives that felt the most inclusionary and diverse as well. Without them, this book is token white feminism trying to beat down the man, the three white women tearing down structures of society with no thought to who actually gets hurt most by their actions. Which is why I wish there had been more focus on these other characters. It’s like Harrow tried to make her feminism more open and inclusive but she didn’t quite go far enough: these characters did feel a little like side offerings to the main quest of these three sisters, used to help them reach their full power and take down the villain. I wish we’d seen more importance placed on those putting themselves at risk for the sisters because these characters really were the heart and soul of this book and gave this book its most powerful moments.
But overall, I did find this book very enchanting. There is no question that Alix E. Harrow writes absolutely beautifully, in a way that makes you completely entranced in a world. I appreciate her efforts to attempt a more inclusive fight for feminism but I do feel it could have gone a lot further. The best part of this book were the small moments with the characters around the sisters, the moments where other characters got to show their world and their hopes and their dreams and why they were fighting and I wish we’d had more importance and focus placed on these (at times infinitely more) interesting characters.