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.
The Once and Future Witches is a fascinating book. To me it is very much a tonal book, being equal parts atmospheric and character driven. The book is also very thematic. This is my first Alix E. Harrow book (I have a copy of The Ten Thousand Doors of January but have not yet read it), and I have to say the writing really impressed me.
Diving first into the character set, which is obviously a really important aspect of a story about witches. The three main protagonists are the Eastwood Sisters – witches all – and they have very different personalities. Each plays a significant role in the story, while also being dissimilar from the others. In contemplating the writing process, I think this is difficult to pull off. Three sisters, all raised together, all coming into their own as witches, and to be able to write each one into the story in such a distinct way made a big impact on me. Basically, the reader gets to experience the narrative 4 different ways as each Sister’s relationship to the story is not like the others, and the main storyline is an amalgamation of all three. Between the three, as a reader, you are bound to connect with at least one of the characters, and to be able to see them grow and evolve, and to experience the journey each of them goes through is a big part of what kept my interest as a reader. In that same vein, the book is quite emotional, as each of the protagonists goes through a lot in the present while at the same time confronting issues from their past and looking toward the future, as well. The way everything ties together showcases Harrow’s writing skills as much as anything. It is quite a rollercoaster of a read.
I mentioned the book was atmospheric, and while I think that is a staple characteristic of most books in this genre, The Once and Future Witches goes above and beyond the norm. Harrow uses fairy tales and nursery rhymes to set the stage and create an appropriate tone for every scene; in addition, the author uses the entire palate of colors and scents and sounds to make every sequence stand out – whether it is one full of action or just a close-up of a private, personal moment. Every single thing, every detail is meticulously placed. Nothing is wasted, everything is meaningful, the reader being completely immersed in the narrative with nowhere to go but to continue the story. That is the reason I read: to escape, to become one with another story, to experience something I will not in my own life. Harrow does an amazing job of accomplishing that in this book.
I need to also mention how thematic this story is, as well. Feminism is a main theme, here, that permeates every aspect of the book. The setting and time period both represent times where and when women were treated as second-class citizens, with no voting rights and when many worked hard jobs for very little pay. Much of the plot centers around groups of women fighting to gain those rights, so that feminism is front and center. But, in my opinion, the author furthers that to the highest degree with the aspects of the story that are more acute. I think an underrated part of the book is that almost all of the characters are women. Not just the Sisters, but most of their friends, confidants, and fellow conspirators. Experiencing a story with a plot like this from the perspective of so many different women takes the Feminist undertones and really brings them to life. There is a lot of “tell” in this book, but there is also so much “show” along the way and that is what makes the most impact. There are also themes of race and racism present in this story, too, which at times work in conjunction with the feminism and other times work against it – to the Sisters’ surprise. This was a fascinating aspect of the story, because I think it really represents the nuance that exists when it comes to human rights and how we can all learn from the experiences of others.
For all of the reasons I mentioned, I absolutely adored this book. The Once and Future Witches is at times intimate, other times booming, always unforgettable. I honestly cannot get over how well-written it is. I definitely recommend this book for fans of the genre and those looking to get lost in a story.