The Once and Future Witches
by Alix E. Harrow
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.
I received an eARC of The Once and Future Witches from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
When I say I love and want stories about witches, this is the kind of story I mean.
Over the past year I’ve fallen in love with Alix E. Harrow’s stories. Not only is she an author who combines fantasy with historical fiction, one of my favourite things to read and write, and not only is her writing stunning, but there’s something so nostalgic about her tales that reminds me why it is we love stories in the first place.
After celebrating the portal fantasy genre in The Ten Thousand Doors of January, it’s time for witches to shine in The Once and Future Witches and oh how I adored this book.
James Juniper is the youngest of three sisters who were all incredibly close until they weren’t. Until the day her older sisters left her with their father, and June never heard from them again. When her father finally dies seven years later (with a little help from June), she flees to New Salem, reunites with her sisters (who, for some reason, haven’t spoken to each other in a long time) and, naturally, becomes involved in the suffrage movement.
In this alternate version of 19th century America, though, witches are real and still widely feared, and when June and her sisters, Bella and Agnes, accidentally bring witchcraft back into the world to empower women and the disenfranchised, they find themselves at war with the government of New Salem.
There’s June, who’s young and angry and frightened and so desperate to be with her sisters; middle sister, Agnes, the beauty who’s tried to cut herself off from her desire to mother the world until motherhood comes knocking on her door; and eldest sister, Bella, a scholarly and shy librarian who’s hiding some demons of her own after their father sent her away to school.
This novel had so much in it that I love, and explored so many different things, that I don’t really know what to say about it other than that you need to pick it up and read it. There are so many quotes from this book that I would gladly have tattooed on my forehead.
There were two things I particularly loved, however. Firstly, I loved that this is a novel of witchcraft with family at its centre. You’d think witchcraft and covens would create dozens and dozens of stories centred on sisterhoods, and yet so many witchcraft stories are overtaken by romance. The Once and Future Witches is a love story, but it’s a love story between three sisters who are discovering each other again and, in so doing, finally discovering themselves.
There were still two romances in the novel that I loved – a sapphic romance that was my everything, and another romance I so appreciated because Harrow wrote a woman who was still allowed to be desirable while pregnant, which I don’t think we see enough – but they worked so well because they didn’t take over the story, and it’s ultimately the relationship between June, Agnes and Bella that’s at the heart of this book.
Secondly, can I please get a hallelujah that the Eastwood sisters aren’t from high society? Something I’m always yearning for more of in my witch stories, particularly when they have a historical setting, is stories centred around the working classes. Tales about high society witches so often follow the same pattern of a woman who’s not like other girls™ who doesn’t want to get married, and yet whose story often ultimately revolves around a romance. With the Eastwood sisters being working class, Harrow was able to look at so many different parts of society – from the suffrage movement to racism to trans rights – instead of following one very small group of people who never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.
This is a tale of family and sisterhood and politics and power; a story about how the way in which the history of anyone who isn’t a white and wealthy man is so often overlooked can also be a way of quietly passing power through the generations, and how, ultimately, the stories we choose to tell are some of the most powerful spells in our possession.