The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Published: 15th October 2020 (Orbit)
‘Proper witching is just a conversation with that red heartbeat, which only ever takes three things: the will to listen to it, the words to speak with it, and the way to let it into the world. The will, the words, and the way.
… everything important comes in threes.’
‘Once upon a time there were three sisters…’ Three Eastwood sisters, to be precise. Agnes, Bella, and James Juniper. They live in a world where magic and power were female, once. Now it is all hushed words passed from mother to daughter, hidden workings and small tricks, all the better to stay beneath notice. For in this place, which is also our place, women are less than they were. They are made small by the power of men— and expected to stay that way.
The year is 1893 and in New Salem the suffragists are rallying for the vote. But the ballot box isn’t the only path to change and a little witchery might be what’s needed to counter the arrival of a new danger, one cloaked in shadows and sickness. Juniper certainly thinks so. But these are sisters are riven by their past, too uncertain with each other in the present. To have a future, they’ll need mend the hurts that broke them, find a way to bring back what was forgotten, and forge something new… something wild and witchy.
This is one of those books that you manage to keep at an emotional distance for only the briefest time before falling head over heels. The opening pages bring a smile as you immediately recognise that Alix Harrow is as just good as you remembered. Or perhaps even better. You marvel again at the beauty and lyricism of her writing, at how quickly she can show you the essence of a character, at how she transforms old tales into new. And then all of that is forgotten as you become lost in the story of these women, become part of their struggles in a way that feels transformative. For this is a book about the power of women and of family. It is history and myth and magic woven together, a literary fairy tale threaded with real world issues. It is a story for our time and for all times.
In following the journey of these sisters, the wider notion of sisterhood in all its forms and possibilities is opened up before us. This is a novel of connection and acceptance and openness and inclusion; a book about women who are fed up, no… angry, at feeling desperate, or trapped, or fearful for themselves or their daughters. Here women must find in each other the way forward, as always it is together that we are strongest. It’s not as easy as that, of course. There are hurdles in the forming of a community, especially when those kept down and pushed out by systems of oppression are also taught to be afraid of each other, to believe in the kind of stereotypes and limitations of other groups and individuals they so reject about themselves. This is especially relevant when it comes to racial difference. In the novel, as today, black women are vulnerable to more hatred, more prejudice, more persecution, and more exclusion. The hesitant and carefully deepening relationship between the strong, but isolated black community, focused through one amazing character in particular, and other characters within the book (I can’t say too much here, it’s spoilery) is sensitively but powerfully done. It made my heart sing to see so much togetherness, no matter how slow or cautious the process has to be. Even as the parallels of discrimination and division fill you with rage and bitter recognition, so books like this offer you hope. It suggests, and not gently, that we must all sacrifice, men and women together, to make the world anew, to create something better for us all.
I have never read anything like this and I honestly love everything about it. Even though I read this advance copy on my kindle, I know that it’s a novel I’m going to have to have for my own, a physical copy on my bookshelves to reflect the story’s place in my heart. I already can’t wait to read it again.
It will hardly surprise you to hear that this is not only one of my books of the year, but of all time. It could not have come at a better moment and I urge you all to read it.