Our Daddy never taught us shit, except what a fox teaches chickens — how to run, how to tremble, how to outlive the bastard — and our mama died before she could teach us much of anything. But we had Mama Mags, our mother’s mother, and she didn’t fool around with soup-pots and flowers.
Once upon a time there were three sisters, in a world where women’s magic was outlawed and driven underground. They had to battle an evil man and rediscover their own power, but each was filled with so much rage, pain and loss, that seemed impossible.
2020’s The Once and Future Witches is Alix E. Harrow’s sophomore novel. Harrow excels at so much here. The book is angrier than The Ten Thousand Doors of January, and manages somehow to be both grittier and yet as lyrical. Her characterizations are so honest that you can cut yourself on their pain and rage.
In a strange version of the USA, in 1893, three sisters each arrive in the town of New Salem. James Juniper, the youngest sister, is lost when she arrives there. Agnes Amaranth, the middle sister, is weak when she arrives, and Beatrice Belladonna, the oldest sister, is a fool. By a string of coincidences, the convergence of the three, who haven’t seen each other in years, conjures up a magical tower in the middle of a politically divided town where women’s magic lives in hiding. And that’s just the start.
I loved the way Harrow leads us to women’s magic and where it’s hidden, like the way nearly every chapter opens with a nursery rhyme or a bit of child’s song. Her descriptions are beautiful. Harrow is a master of language, and the narrative voice drifts from down-home and folksy (see the passage from the introduction, above) to lyrical, to snappish, depending on whose point of view we share.
The best part of this book for me was not the magic or the fable of female power, although that was great. It was Harrow’s fearless dissection of relationships in an abusive household. The Eastwood sisters’ drunken, violent father intuitively feared the power his daughters shared, and not simply their magic. Like many such parents, he was adept at driving wedges between them. Later in the book, we learn a little more about him and the trauma he experienced during the USA’s Civil War. It does not excuse him, but it does explain him.
Magic is not the only thing denied women in this world. As in our own in this time, women are denied the vote. The women’s suffrage movement plays a role in this book, as a counterpoint (the leading suffragist refuses to even discuss the rights of women to wield magic). Theoretically, in Europe and America, women have been barred from magic for hundreds of years. To the suffrage group in New Salem, it’s more than a dead issue — it’s one that will damage their credibility as they fight for the vote.
The Eastwood sisters are wonderful characters. The supporting cast, including union activist August, mild-mannered librarian Mr. Blackwell and the bold Black journalist Cleo Quinn, are expertly depicted through their complicated relationships with the sisters. Throughout the book we meet many women, often just sketched in, but those few lines bring those people to life.
There is very much that is wonderful in The Once and Future Witches, but it fell short of being a five-star book for me because of the villain and the trouble I had understanding and navigating this world.
In contrast to the Eastwood father, the villain, while certainly a powerful adversary, was not complex or terribly interesting to me. His roots and backstory led back to the problem of the world-building. If he is powerful enough and long-lived enough to have done what the book says he does, why is he in this podunk little city of New Salem? But maybe New Salem isn’t a podunk little city; after all, the suffrage movement here seems to have implications for the entire country. I couldn’t tell whether New Salem’s suffrage movement symbolized the national treatment of women, or represented it, if that makes sense.
The metropolitan area of New Salem seems to fluctuate. As the sisters each arrived, I thought it was a thriving town. Later I discovered it was big enough to have a factory district, a riverside waterfront, and a sizeable Black community. Its sphere of influence seems huge, though — after all, the villain, whose goals are continental if not global, came here. Later, as needed in the story, the city has a subterranean prison and catacombs. Most baffling was the name. The city chose to name itself after the site of a massacre of witches, mostly children and women. People seem quite proud of the massacre. I guess New Salem chose that name to create a town free of women’s magic. The town is, we learn, at least a hundred miles from the original Salem, which does not appear to be where Salem was in our world. Generally, when the book referenced an historical event from our world, the seams showed.
I spend so much time on the world-building, which is not an important part of this story — this book is a fable — because its distracted me from following the story. While the book’s comments about destiny/coincidence versus free will also left me scratching my head a bit, I didn’t mind it, because there is a post-modernist flavor to The Once and Future Witches. The reason this is a 4.5 star book instead of a 5 star book is because nagging questions about the world and its history kept me from sinking fully into this story as I wanted to.
In spite of that, this is an engaging read with wonderful characters and a brilliant work. I recommend it highly. Harrow is now in that group of authors whose books I will preorder as soon as a I know about them, regardless of what they’re about. Read The Once and Future Witches for the beautiful language, the rage and the sisterhood.
Simply put, The Once and Future Witches is as close to a perfect book as I can imagine. Alix E. Harrow fills her richly layered narrative with fully-realized, deeply complicated characters (some of whom you’ll just love to hate, and others who you’d happily march alongside through the streets of New Salem, wands and pointy hats aloft) in a mirror-mirror version of our universe — one in which the Sisters Grimm, Alexandra Pope, Charlotte Perrault, Aunt Nancy, and so many other women had an instrumental hand in safely shepherding witchcraft through the ages. Harrow also borrows heavily from historical precedent, giving her characters legitimate concerns about safe working conditions and the suffragette movement, giving her characters the badly-needed agency to improve their own lives through their access to spells, herbalism, folklore, and the right to cast a ballot.
The Eastwood sisters share a painful childhood, and the ways in which they each interpreted certain pivotal moments inform their current relationships as adults, as well as the ways in which they choose to allow themselves to be vulnerable with others. It was impossible for me to pick a favorite among them: James Juniper is the exact kind of woman I’d want at my side for a political rally, Agnes Amaranth is an easy pick for best possible co-worker, and Beatrice Belladonna is, hands-down, one of my new favorite fictional librarians. None of them have easy choices to make, and they all make serious mistakes, but it’s their willingness to try to do better that keeps the heart of this book beating loud and strong.
I could, very easily, go on and on forever about how much I love this book. The Once and Future Witches made me laugh, filled me with righteous indignation, frightened me at more than one point, and I sobbed throughout the ending. It’s a deeply affecting story that sucked me in from the very first line, and one that I will gladly return to again and again whenever I need a reminder that impossible fights still need to be fought, that many hands make light work, and that the absolute best thing wayward women can do is unite.