Book Reviews

Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow

It has taken me forever to read this book, but I think I did actually end up reading it at just the right time…

Book: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow

Publication date: 13th October 2020

Ownership: Proof copy sent free of charge by Orbit Books. All opinions my own.

Content warnings: (from the author) child abuse, both physical and psychological; parental death; arrest and imprisonment; mind control; pregnancy and childbirth, including forced hospitalization; abortion; racism; sexism; homophobia, both external and internalized; threat of sexual assault, averted; torture (mostly off-the-page, but alluded to); execution (attempted); child abandonment; major character death. I personally want to add that I found the pregnancy, childbirth and threat to babies a very prominent and intense theme in the book.

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.

This is a sharp, angry book. If you come to it expecting something as warm and sweeping and full of hope as The Ten Thousand Doors of January, you’ll be surprised, because The Once and Future Witches has vicious teeth. Doors was not a wholly cheery or cosy book (see my review here) – plenty of bad things happened to January – but Witches is on a different level, and has all of its characters constantly dealing with trauma, abuse, and systemic injustice that makes them, and the reader, furious. The two books certainly share bones, and I think there’s a recognisable quality to Alix Harrow’s writing in the way it manages to be dreamy and down-to-earth at the same time, but this book is its own, prickly thing.

In this book we alternate between three sisters, all forging their own paths through a world which sees them as lesser for being women and sees them as a threat for being witches. The New Salem setting mashes up various elements of real-world history; this isn’t quite an alternate history, as there’s no single diversion point, but a sort of cracked-mirror version that echoes and twists our world. I highly recommend looking at the author’s notes on Goodreads once you’ve read it, to discover some of the allusions and twisted nods to real-world elements that you may have missed; I will say that as someone more familiar with the English women’s suffrage movement than the American one, I missed a fair few. But this is an intriguing world, with enough similarities to ours that it feels immediately familiar, and the general plots, as the sisters and their companions fight for equality, will be extremely resonant despite the differences. The struggle for equality is perhaps a little centred on white feminism, but there are strong themes about the importance of intersectionality, even if the characters (and perhaps even the narrative itself) don’t quite achieve it. I did really enjoy the ways in which the book explored how women’s work, their tools and hobbies and skills and labour, are dismissed, and how that dismissal can be weaponised – magic hidden in fairy tales and embroidery and nursery rhymes is just an exquisite idea. Fairy tale and character archetype nerds in particular will be thrilled with where this book goes.

There is a lot of darkness in the story, as you would expect from the subject matter. For the most part, I didn’t find this too graphic, but as I mentioned in the warnings above, I found Agnes’s struggle with pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood really intense to read; this is the only reason I’m glad I waited to read this book, because I think if I’d have read it when it arrived on my doorstep, a few days after my son was born, I would have DNFed it out of sheer anxiety. I cannot state enough that if you are uncomfortable reading graphic depictions of difficult births, you want to tread carefully with this book; I will happily give you chapter and page references to skip if you need them, please just ask. There’s also a really intricate exploration of the different ways people deal with parental abuse; each of the sisters is messed up in different ways, and the book is a fantastically tender look at healing, forgiveness, and how they navigate the world in the face of their experiences. It’s an intense read in many ways, but a very, very well-written one.

I’m struggling to write this review, because I feel like I should be gushing about this book, but I actually have it solidly in the ‘liked it a lot’ camp, which feels like less praise than it deserves. I’m not really 100% sure why I didn’t love this as much as The Ten Thousand Doors of January; it has fairy tale deconstruction, feminist witches, alternate history, scholarship, Arthurian links, libraries, and more, and I should be raving about it. I think, perhaps, it was just a little darker than I was hoping for, and the characters were a little difficult to connect with because they were so – understandably! – prickly and unhappy. I also felt like the pacing was a little bit off, and there was a point about 60% of the way through the book that felt more like the climax than the actual climax did. These are all very minor things, and they’re offset by the author’s exquisite writing style and wonderful character studies, so I do still wholeheartedly recommend this book.

I wonder perhaps if what it boils down to was that this was too close to home for me: a fantasy that forces you to look at the real world, past and present, which is extremely effective but maybe not perfect for me, a reader seeking wonder and comfort and an escape from the very kind of anger at injustice that this book is guaranteed to make you feel. So yes, highly recommended, but four and a half out of five cats from me.

6 thoughts on “Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow

  1. This is a great review! You cover a great deal of ground without giving away much of the plot. (Also, I loooove historical/mythological allusions, so I shall indeed be checking out the author’s notes on Goodreads when I get around to this book). Your mention of Arthurian references really caught my eye, and I’m curious to hear more about that. I also appreciate your honesty in how you struggled to relate to the characters and didn’t enjoy it as much as Harrow’s other works, and how you noted the focus on white feminism in the book without treating it as an irredeemable flaw. You’ve got sharp eyes and I always enjoy reading your reviews!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, that’s so kind of you to say! The Arthurian elements are light – it’s not a retelling or anything – but definitely there in an oblique sort of way, as the title implies… Mostly towards the end of the book though, so I don’t want to say too much! I hope you really enjoy spotting everything when you do get around to it – you’ll have to let me know what you think!

      Liked by 1 person

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