Review: “The Once & Future Witches” by Alix E Harrow

Release Date: October 13, 2020
Publisher: Red Hook
Genre: Historical Fantasy

Description

“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.”

My Review

The story always comes in threes. Three main characters, three wishes, three acts of violence. The story is also always rosier than the truth it is based on. Alix E Harrow, fresh off 2019’s wondrous The Ten Thousand Doors of January, turns her sharp gaze to the patriarchy (and white supremacy) with The Once & Future Witches. Three sisters – pensive Bella, wild Juniper, and stoic Agnes – haven’t seen each other in years, not since a tragic fire that left Juniper disabled and her sisters scattered to the wind. After Bella unintentionally casts a spell and pulls a magical tower out of thin air, the three are reunited. 

The suffragette movement serves as cover for their real scheme to restore witchcraft and pull women out from under men’s thumbs. But it soon becomes bigger than any of them could imagine. A romance between Bella and Cleopatra, a Black journalist from the redlined side of town, a friendship between Juniper and a queer trans woman, and Agnes’ partnership with poor immigrants and labor activists expands their goals from equality to equity to restorative justice. 

Seething in the shadows is an ancient evil determined to stamp out any and all witchcraft in the most brutal fashion. As a sinister city councilman sets his sights on becoming mayor and passing old school Puritan laws, and his female charge who wants to quash the suffragette movement, the sisters have their work cut out for them.

Harrow initially divides magic into women’s magic and men’s magic. Women’s magic tends to be related to the household (mending seams, cooking, etc.) and men’s magic is rougher (tying shoelaces together, etc.). However, over the course of the novel, we see how much of that gender divide is caused by the patriarchy rather than any natural order. As the final confrontation heats up, men use “women’s” magic and women use “men’s” magic and no one bats an eye. We also see how the magic of other cultures is devalued by – the scene in the human zoo – and stolen by white supremacy. Juniper has a very narrow view of what real magic is, and the more she interacts with diverse communities the more she realizes how much her understanding was shaped and limited by the patriarchy. The sisters think oppression is normal. Yes, their first steps toward resistance are mired in white and cisheteronormative feminism, but Harrow gives them the space to grow and learn.

Alix E Harrow has a stunningly lyrical style of writing. She puts words together in unexpected ways. The whole thing feels almost like a fairytale, not one of those cheesy Disney versions but the darker older ones full of blood and bone and tears. A thrilling, devastating, gorgeous novel from a tremendous author. This and Alexis Henderson’s The Year of the Witching are in a tie for best witch book of 2020.

Buy it at Bookshop.org (affiliate link)

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