- The Once and Future Witches.
- Alix E. Harrow.
- 528 pages.
- Fantasy / Historical Fantasy / Specualtive Fiction.
- My Rating: Hellyeah Book Review.
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 three Eastwood sisters join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten 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 must 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.
I received a free copy of this book courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
The Once and Future Witches sees the three Eastwood sisters, Agnes Amaranth, Beatrice Belladonna and James Juniper stitch together the wounds of the past, reconcile their fractured relationship, break the chains, cast off the shackles of servitude, rise up and readdress the balance of power, bring witchcraft back into the world and wage war on oppression taking up the fight for women’s and witches rights in the city without sin of New Salem in 1893.
Several years ago, Agnes and Bella both left home abandoning Juniper to Crow County and their abusive and alcoholic father. Since then, Juniper has heard nothing from either of her sisters, they left her behind, but they left each other behind too. Agnes and Bella, through different roads, both found their way to New Salem where they are living separate lives, Agnes as a factory-mill worker and Bella as a librarian. Once closer than close, old resentments and animosity run deep, cuts have festered, poisoning over time and neither sister knows or cares that her sister is there too. Like with Juniper, their bond has severed and they haven’t corresponded since they were forced from their home years ago.
After events in Crow County leave her a wanted woman, Juniper flees, you can only take so much before you are pushed past a point where you break. Juniper found her breaking point, on the run, with no destination in mind and only a train ticket, trading country life for bustling city streets she too finds herself in New Salem. On her arrival in New Salem Juniper heads to St. George’s Square where a suffrage rally by the New Salem Women’s Association is taking place. Inexplicably, Agnes and Bella both feel a pull, like they are invisibly tethered and they too are drawn to the square.
While the three sisters are at the afternoon rally reality cracks, the world fractures and against a night sky and surrounded by strange constellations of stars a legendary black tower circled by and entwined with briar thorns and roses thought a fable, a myth from the stories of old crosses through and briefly manifests in the square. The apparition of the tower appears on the equinox, it is a summoning that has reached through the folds of fabric and time and that is thrumming with power and potent witchcraft not seen in generations, not since witches ruled the night and the world was alive with magic.
The tower fades, but it is an unfinished spell, a door has been opened and it hasn’t been closed. The Eastwood sisters can sense the power and the lingering smell and taste that the magic has left. In the square, it is the first time in seven years that the sisters have seen each other and have felt each other. It is a strained meeting, stiff and full of old hurts. The sisters are blood, they have ties that bind, but it is a fine line between love and hate when the trust has gone, you are full of anger and the bonds that you once shared have been broken.
Agnes and Bella both go back to their own lives and Juniper, excited by the augury, the portent of the tower, looking for a cause and for a fight joins up with the New Salem Women’s Association. After being part of the group for a while, frustrated with the lack of progress, wanting action and not just words Juniper organises an illegal demonstration, but the demonstration goes wrong. In the aftermath, coming to her aid and rather reluctantly, their lives begin to once again intertwine and the other two Eastwood sisters, Agnes and Bella agree to join Juniper in forming their own group to bring back the old ways of magic and witchcraft, to fight for equality, for the right to vote, to be heard, for the rights of women and for the rights of witches and so, the Sisters of Avalon are born with their goal to make a better world.
The Sisters of Avalon will find allies and forge alliances with other discriminated minorities across New Salem banding together marginalised groups, the poor, the coloured, those who are seen as less, the oppressed and those who have suffered at the hands of injustice. However, New Salem is a dangerous place for witches and for women who dare to dream of more. There are those who are scared, frightened of change and of the powerless gaining power who will attempt to stop the changing tides. Natural and unnatural forces work against the Eastwood sisters and a dark presence who controls sinister moving shadows that are a darker shade of black and who seem to be stalking the Sisters of Avalon twisting, warping and writhing of their own accord wants to prevent the return of magic to the world.
Long since passed, the age of witches has been consigned to history, to folklore and to stories where they are the villains of the tale. Magic was once plentiful, a churning torrent and a vast ocean, but the bloodlines of the witches that have managed to survive have been drastically diluted and now, all that is left is a trickle in a tiny stream and what little is left is weak. There is no place for witches and witchcraft in a civilised society and the modern world, the world of factories and industry. The witch-trials and purges saw most of the witch population eradicated, hunted, hung and burnt, but witchery abides and away from prying eyes, cloaked and in secret, magic is still practised. Though greatly diminished from the legendary feats of witchcraft in the medieval ages, the once-mighty have fallen and now, witchcraft is reduced to little more than parlour tricks, some small charms and simple spells (spells that do little more than stop pots boiling over, keep the silver shiny and stop dust from landing on the mantelpiece). Magic is channelled and cast using the will, the words and the way. Many of the words were lost in the purges, but some survived kept hidden in plain sight in nursery rhymes, lullabies, songs and children’s stories within families and passed down from generation to generation, mother to daughter and father to son.
The Once and Future Witches is set in an alternate history to our own with a gossamer sheen of the fantastical added to it. There are some subtle changes and alterations such as the reimagined fairytales and rhymes that are used as the words required to cast spells and the brothers Grimm are now the Sisters Grimm, etc. As the setting where the majority of the story takes place, New Salem feels alive and every aspect of the world-building by Harrow is stellar.
The story told in the Once and Future Witches includes suspense, tension, intense scenes and it is very character-driven. You see the three Eastwood sisters grow through the anger and the old resentments that they feel, building bridges and navigating the turbulent maelstrom of their sibling relationship. Maturing through the struggles that they face and must overcome as they fight for something in their attempts to bring magic back to the world and to make the impossible, possible again. The Eastwood sisters mother died during the birth of James Juniper, the youngest of the three leaving them at the mercy of their monstrous father and their home was a cruel place to live. The only kindness shown to them was by Mama Mags, their mother’s mother and their grandmother who taught they witchcraft, but she couldn’t stop their father, his temper and his controlling ways. The sisters were once close, but years apart and being estranged from each other have left a distance between them that is more than miles, more than years of separation, it is a personal history of pain, betrayal, loss and guilt, of actions and their consequences and of being left behind.
Agnes, Bella and Juniper, the Eastwood sisters are a trio of absolutely fantastic characters and each features some superb characterisation by Harrow. Each of the sisters is very different from the other and all three have their own individual personalities. They are broken and damaged by life, yet, they have endured the hardship of living, they survived and they are all strong, but as they will find they are far stronger together than they are apart. Beatrice Belladonna, the eldest is bookish, calm, quiet, timid, worrisome, knowledgable, wise and lacks confidence in herself. Agnes Amaranth, the middle sister is practical, strong and steadfast. And, James Juniper, the youngest is feral, reckless, unpredictable, stubborn and wild. Trouble seems to follow Juniper wherever she goes, there is a raging hurt inside her and she wants others to hurt like she does. Juniper with her untamed spirit is by far my favourite of the three sisters, but there are many thought-provoking moments revolving around all three of them in the story that are deeply moving, that pull on the heartstrings and that rank high on the emotional scale due to your investment in the trio. Throughout the story the three Eastwood sisters are aided by a wide range of diverse characters that are all well-developed too, some with larger and lasting roles and others have smaller roles to play, but they all add a little something extra to the overall story.
Anyone who has read Harrow’s previous book The Ten Thousand Doors of January will know that she has a bewitching way with words and that she writes in a very poetic, lilting and lyrical way with lush descriptions that paint vivid and vibrant watercolours of her characters, her settings and her unfolding story. Words have power and Harrow’s writing personifies this, it is beautiful, like a balm of soothing honey and spun silken spider webs that glisten in the morning dew. As she weaves her story she mesmerises you with her prose carrying you along with a soaring melody that ebbs and flows against a backdrop of sweet summer rain, a cool breeze and a cascading and serene waterfall. That style of writing is still present in the majority of The Once and Future Witches, but this time around it is peppered with an icy wind, sharp staccato barbs and blast beats that punctuate the serenity, stoke the flames and that serve as a counterpoint to the beauty, highlighting the anger, the rage and the venomous fury that is felt by the three Eastwood sisters.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January was a love letter to books, to stories, to readers and to those who crave adventure and yearn for escape. With it, Harrow created a book that reminded you why you fell in love with reading. The Once and Future Witches is a book about empowerment and sisterhood, it is about the voiceless finding their voice, it is about rediscovering the power hidden within, it is a call to arms to fight for your beliefs, for your rights and a reminder that you choose your own fate, walk your own path and write your own destiny.
Harrow is a magnificent storyteller and The once and Future Witches is a captivating and magical tale, enchanting and exceptional.
Pre-order The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow released on October 15th, 2020.
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