I was so worried I wouldn’t like this book. Harrow’s debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January was good, but not nearly as immersive or emotionally impactful as I had hoped. So I went into her second novel with a bit of scepticism. It took a little while to get going but then it turned into everything I had hoped and more.
THE ONCE AND FUTURE WITCHES
by Alix E. Harrow
Published: Orbit, 2020
eBook: 525 pages
My rating: 8.5/10
Opening line: There’s no such thing as witches, but there used to be.
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.
Three sisters – James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna – meet again after seven years of being apart, in the city of New Salem. Through coincidence, or maybe fate. Their relationship is fraught, each feeling the betrayal of the others as keenly as if it happened yesterday. In their past lies a childhood spent with a violent, abusive father and only a loving grandmother and each other for comfort. Juniper, the youngest, was the last to finally escape and is determined to make it on her own. Her sisters, the ones who left her all alone with their father, don’t have to be in her life. After all, they left, didn’t they? And if the three Eastwoods are thrown together again through the suffragist movement, that doesn’t mean they have to love each other, right?
For a long time, maybe a third of the book, I felt that it would have been better served if we followed only one protagonist – June – instead of head hopping between the three Eastwood sisters. Because during the beginning of the novel, none of them ever got to shine fully due to the frequent switches between them. Whenever I’d feel like I was getting to know one sister, we’d jump to one of the others. Juniper was the only one who was intriguing from the start, but both Agnes and Bella stayed rather bland for quite some time. Bella, the mopey, quiet librarian who just wants to stay out of everyone’s way didn’t have much to interest me (except being a lesbian in a time when that was considered shameful). Whenever we’d see glimpses of her hopes and dreams and things got interesting, however, we’d promptly move on to Agnes. Her defining characterstic (at least at the beginning) is her pregnancy and the fact that she works in a mill under terribel conditions. She stays away from people and doesn’t want to bond with anyone because that means she could get hurt. Again, not much to aspire to and thus, not much of interest to me as the reader.
But things improve over the course of the novel, and they improve greatly! By the second half of the book, I felt like I knew the Eastwood sisters much better. It was mostly the bond between the three that helped them come to life. But their seperate story lines also started to shine. Bella’s infatuation with the Cleopatra Quinn leads her to discover a whole different part of New Salem, the Black community, which also has its own witchy ways and words and is fighting its own fight for freedom.
Agnes meets August Lee, a man who doesn’t just see her as a beautiful object but who acutally admires her spirit and capabilities. And Juniper grows up a whole lot throughout this novel. Her wild spirit doesn’t get dampened so much as she learns that her first impulse is not necessarily always the best course of action. Watching these three grow, each as her own person as well as in their role as sisters, was a thing of pure beauty!
Harrow also did a magificent job showing the utter unfairness of the time and setting. The Sisters of Avalon – an organisation of suffragist witches – want to gain voting rights for women with the help of a little witchcraft – which sounds nice and all, but becomes all the more tangible when you see what they’re up against. It’s not just that they have no rights currently, it’s how the system is rigged against them, how any grasp for the tiniest bit of power is immediately thwarted – and sometimes by the very people they are fighting for!
Gideon Hill is running for mayor of New Salem and while he is a bit of an overdrawn villain, his methods aren’t fantastical at all but all too realistic. Discrediting the opposition wherever possible, making them out to be sinful, evil, and deserving of severe punishment makes it harder for the Sisters to gain traction. They’re fighting for all women, yet women stand against them just the same as powerful men do. Out of fear, out of conviction… it doesn’t really matter. Hill’s blatant disregard for the law for his own personal gain reminded me a bit too much of our current situation. This book is set in the 1890s…
I also quite enjoyed the magic system if you want to call it that. In order to work a spell, you need the words and the ways (and the will but that one’s easy). The words could be a rhyme or a little song, the way may involve an item or a strong emotion – it may not be a strict magic system, but it felt real, and the words and ways always made sense and fit the respective spell.
What was so fascinating about it, though, was how these spells have been handed down through generations of women. Witch hunts happened and many of the spell books were burned alongside their witches, but that doesn’t mean witchcraft has died altogether. Women just had to become cleverer in the way they handed down their knowledge to the next generation. They hid it in plain sight. Discovering some of these witchy words and ways alongside the Eastwood sisters gave me so much joy!
One thing that could have been done better was the side characters. It was lovely to have a Black side character who shows us the time and setting from a different perspective – one even less privileged than our three white protagonists. But Cleopatra Quinn never quite makes it out of the sidelines, she’s always just hovering there in her function as love interest and as a mouthpiece for the Black community of New Salem.
What I found a real shame, however, was the last minute transgender character. That really felt like it was just thrown in for added diversity. And while I do appreciate that Harrow shows us all sorts of different women, this could have been done better or at least integrated into the story somehow. The way it was done is just that a character randomly announces that they’re a trans woman at the end of the book.
All that said, I love how diverse the cast of characters was. I did at times question that everyone is so immediately accepting of people who were not, at that time, generally accepted. Of course I want my protagonists to be good people without biases but I found it very strange that Bella was incredibly ashamed about her being a lesbian, yet had not a moment of doubt about falling for a Black woman. You could argue that the group of women thrown together in this story are all fighting for the same thing – for their rights and their freedom – and that racial differences, sexual preferences, or assigned genders don’t matter. Because they really don’t! But this book is set in 1893 and that made the unquestioning acceptance a little anachronistic to me.
The same goes for the gender swapping of famous story tellers and collectors. In this universe, it was the Sisters Grimm and Andrea Lang who are renowned collectors of stories. Which is cute and all but not really believable. Who would publish books by women in a time when women had next to no rights? I mean, the whole book is about this issue, yet we’re supposed to believe that women authors are just as respected as men and would even have been published? I don’t know…
But all of that said, in the end, I reminded myself that this was a fictional story that also hat magic in it, set in a made-up place with more than one liberty when it comes to actual history. So I rolled with it and simply enjoyed reading about these women all working together in a beautiful way.
The story itself takes a while to get going and at least in the beginning, I wasn’t sure what to focus on. Harrow sets up several plot strings right from the start but her focus shifts throughout the book. You have the difficult relationship between June, Bella, and Agnes and you have the suffragist movement – which teaches June that there’s a lot more paperwork involved than she would like. But then something weird is going on with people’s shadows, Agnes is pregnant and not sure if she wants to be, and Bella is falling in love with a Black woman who may not be completely trustworthy. It’s a lot!
Give the book some time, it finds its pace and it definitely finds its heart. It’s a pretty long book so I’m surprised that I’m saying this, but it wouldn’t have hurt if the first half of it had been even longer. Instead of rushing through the set-up for all those plot strings, we could have spent more time with the protagonists, getting to know them a bit earlier, and getting a feel for this world. But no harm done. As I said, after a while, I was completely in the story, feverishly turning the pages, needing to know what happened next and if things would turn out okay.
By the end, Alix E. Harrow had me near tears on several occasions. I can’t tell you any of the specific moments without spoiling them but I can explain why they gave me such warm feelings. You see all sorts of women working together as a group for the greater good, despite terrible odds, despite enormous danger to themselves and their loved ones. There are no petty fights, there’s no jealousy, there’s simply weighing the cost against the potential gains. There’s loyalty and friendship and love. And magic, of course!
It’s not a spoiler to say that the Eastwood sisters do resolve their problems and grow together more and more over the course of this story, and this was another thing that brought me to tears several times. Harrow describes their bond in such a beautiful way and she doesn’t need flowery declarations of sisters love to do it. She lets her characters’ actions speak for themselves and I think that’s what made this book so powerful.
I started out with trepidation, slowly found my way into this story, and by the end I was all aglow and want to push all of you guys to read it too. So although The Ten Thousand Doors of January didn’t work for me 100%, I’m glad to say that Alix E. Harrow is still one of my favorite authors and that I’ll be watching closely for her next book. She’s going to spiderverse a fairy tale (Sleeping Beauty) with two Tordotcom novellas and I AM THERE FOR IT! But for now, I’ll simply enjoy that feeling after you’ve finished reading a truly great book that warms your heart and makes you feel like magic hasn’t completly gone from the world after all.
MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Truly excellent!
5 thoughts on “Sisterhood and the Fight for Freedom: Alix E. Harrow – The Once and Future Witches”
Aaaa this is reminding me so much that I need to read this book! An ARC of it is lying on the floor of my bedroom guilting me with its eyes. Like you, I wasn’t wild about The Ten Thousand Doors of January but am hoping this one works better for me.
I think that it’s totally realistic for women to have published those books of stories, honestly! Women published books even well before the 1890s, and as just one example off the top of my head, Oscar Wilde’s mum published a book about Irish myths and legends. I do question whether they’d have attained the same cultural cache, but I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility.
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You are right, of course. Women have been published for a loooong time. I just found it confusing that they would reach this level of celebrity in a world that genreally doesn’t value women’s voices.