Fantasy

Book Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Reading format: Library hardback

Content warnings: blood, torture, mention of abuse, language, violence, confinement, suggestions of sex

Rating: 4/5

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“There’s no such thing as witches, but there used to be. It used to be the air was so thick with magic you could taste it on your tongue like ash…But then came the plague and purges.”

It’s 1893, a time when witches have all but disappeared. All that remains from the ashes of the old witching days are a handful of charms passed down from mother to daughter. It’s a time when society considers women sinful by nature and fathers and husbands determine their fate. In New Salem, if a woman wants to possess any means of power, it must be through the right to vote.

When the estranged Eastwood sisters, James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna, decide to join the suffragists, they realize it’s also an opportunity to fight for the rights of witches. They embark on a campaign to recover the lost words and ways of magic so that all women with the will might again learn how to witch and, more importantly, how to advocate for themselves and empower their daughters. But there’s a lingering sickness in New Salem that begins to slowly spread. Peculiar shadows seem to bend to an invisible power. There’s a force that will stop at nothing to ensure the Eastwood sisters fail in their quest to restore the rights of witches and the sisterhood of women.

This is, of course, a tale about witches and magic. But it’s also a story about women supporting women who work together to make the world a better place to live for their future daughters (and sons). These women face issues that unfortunately remain relatable to this day. These include sexual harassment in the workplace, fear of walking home alone, poor pay, shaming of female sexuality, and a disregard for their opinions. However, I also want to mention that there are some feminist men who assist the Eastwood sisters and their sisterhood in their pursuit for rights and witching.

We also read about the ever-present racism and exclusion experienced by the Black community, and the inclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals. I don’t want to say too much more because aspects of this become more developed in the story. But I feel it’s important to point out in case someone is looking for books that include these topics and/or characters.

Like one of my other favorite reads of 2021 (The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue), I very much appreciate Harrow’s writing style. I love when authors show their mastery of words through nearly poetic assemblages of descriptors to draw the reader into the scene. At just over 500 pages long, the plot of the book picks up at nearly the halfway point. Normally this detracts from my reading experience, but the characters are engaging and I wasn’t particularly bothered by this.

Harrow also does a superb job at defining the sisters’ personalities. There’s James Juniper, the teenage spitfire rearing to leave her mark on the world; Agnes Amaranth, the strong, steadfast, and protective sister; and Beatrice Belladonna, the quiet, introverted, and insecure scholar. Overall, I enjoyed this tale of witches boldly interwoven with feminism and uplifting sisterhood. I understand why there’s been so much buzz about this book. If you’re partial to witchy fantasy novels inclusive of modern topics, I recommend The Once and Future Witches.

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