This has definitely been one of the books that I’ve been looking forward to the most this year (along with Addie LaRue, The Bone Shard Daughter and Mexican Gothic). A dash of feminism, a splash of witchery and mixed with a slightly dystopian history? Oh yes, I can work with that.
Title: The Once and Future Witches
Author: Alix E. Harrow
Publication Date: 13th October 2020
Ownership: ARC provided by the publisher and Compulsive Readers blog tour
Rating: 4.5 stars (rounded up to 5)
About the Book
It’s 1893 and James Juniper Eastwood arrives in New Salem in time for the equinox. She finds herself caught up in a suffragist protest, only for the event to turn sour with the scent of witching in the air. A mysterious tower with a strange sigil over the door appears briefly, before fading away. In its place, Juniper is left standing alongside the two sisters she hasn’t seen for the past 7 years. This tower, this sign and these sisters have the potential to bring about not just a women’s movement, but a witches’ movement.
This isn’t the America we know. This was once a world that was ruled by women – powerful, fearful – witches. But now they’ve been burnt, hunted, and all that remains are the words passed from mother to daughter. The names and rhymes and fractured fairy tale stories of the will, the word and the way.
I read The Ten Thousand Doors of January last year and something that I absolutely adore about Alix E. Harrow’s writing is her uncanny ability to create familiar worlds that have a touch of fey, a touch of magic and something a little bit darker and more foreboding. She writes the kind of women that have a proper backstory, motivation and character. It means that you won’t always like them, they won’t always make good decisions, but the things they do are true to themselves.
In particular, I love a world where Old Salem has been burned to ash, where witches around the world still exist, to some extent, but the ways have been lost, trapped in fairy tales and children’s stories, and where there is power but it has been lost.
I especially loved the fairy tale rewrites that appeared every now and again. They had that deliciously feminist and gruesome Carter-like twist and worked perfectly in with the story, the rhymes and the spells that accompanied each chapter, not to mention the gender-swapped folklorists e.g. the Sisters Grimm. That level of thought and planning in writing is something that I really admire and love to read.
The things that both bind and tear the Eastwood sisters – Agnes Aramanth, Beatrice Belladonna and James Juniper – together are really well written. Their relationship with each other has been virtually destroyed by their father and there is little more than a joint cause that binds them. But they are sisters, and no one but each other understands what they’ve been through. Their interactions with each other are sharp, snappy and really fun to read. And they’ve each learnt to cut themselves off from each other; Bella strapping her thoughts into parentheses, Agnes drawing a circle around only herself and Juniper … Juniper is a destructive force of nature.
And, although the narrative is strong – the threat of something shadowy, the uncertainty that the tower will actually bring back witching, the election in New Salem and the suffragist movement – it is a little slow to be enjoyable reading all the time. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t well written, just that it runs through at such a steady pace that it becomes a little challenging to power through. And it also means that at times you are struggling to pull together all the different threads that make up this world to try and understand what has happened and why.
The characters are also written and described in the terminology of the historical time, though, even though women in this world have been powerful witches and this is fantasy history. There has still been slavery, anyone who is Black is called coloured and other ethnicities are described by skin colour e.g. clay-coloured skin (with, to be fair, white characters described similarly). That can make it a little hard to read at times and, we should perhaps be questioning whether we need to describe people in that way when it is a very loosely historical novel. But, on the other hand, this was a really powerful way of presenting a women’s movement (and a witches’ movement) as not just one plucky person or a group of well to do women. We have whores, mill workers, librarians, people of colour and the LGBT community.
I loved the sense of reclaiming one’s past and one’s rights, and the way that fairytales are woven into this story. I found it a little exhausting at times, but greatly admire the research, the energy and the time that has gone into creating a story that feels wholly original.
4.5 strong stars.
I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley, the publisher and as part of a Compulsive Readers book tour in exchange for an honest review.