Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

I’m going to try to keep my enthusiastic gushing to a minimum and properly review this book, but let me just say this might be my new favorite witchy book, and it’s most definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.

What it’s about

From the Goodreads 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.

My thoughts

Harrow’s debut novel is still waiting on my tbr (definitely moving it up after reading this gem), and I haven’t read her Hugo-winning short story, so I had no expectations going in to The Once and Future Witches. Almost immediately, I was completely in love with this book. Here’s why:

The writing is positively enchanting: lyrical, lovely, and forcefulness. Righteous anger and despicable violence woven right along with love, sisterhood, and hope into something truly beautiful to read. From the very beginning I was absorbed into the world of the Eastwood sisters and I truly did not want this book to end.

The characters are diverse, distinct, and fully developed, and they are each so fascinating to read. The Eastwood sisters—Bella, Agnes, and Juniper—were both bonded to one another and driven apart by a motherless childhood raised by an abusive father. They find themselves drawn together after several years on their own. Bella is the oldest sister, the wise one, the firm believer in words and books, learning all she can of witches that came before. Agnes is the middle sister, the strong one and most solitary until she finds herself a mother. Juniper is the youngest sister, the wild one, reckless but charming and brimming with power. The sisters are incredibly complex characters, and I enjoyed all of their POVs so much that I would have loved a book for each sister.

Adding to the rich tapestry of characters are all of the sisters’ fellow witches, friends, lovers, and enemies. There is even a goosebump-inducing appearance by the Crone, the Mother, and the Maiden, well-formed characters and goddesses themselves. This book is subtly and perfectly populated by characters of different races, ethnicities, genders, and orientations.

The story is powerful, intriguing, magical, and engrossing. Set in the 1890s, as the suffragette movement is in full swing and many groups are demanding equality, the Eastwood sisters rediscover the Lost Way of Avalon and the power that witches before them enjoyed. While this is a tale of witches and magic, it’s also a story of overlooked, underestimated women rising up and finding their own way.

“I wonder sometimes where the first witch came from. If perhaps Adam deserved Eve’s curse. If behind every witch is a woman wronged.”

Immensely quotable, perfectly paced, heartbreaking and fortifying, entrancing and satisfying, The Once and Future Witches is an artful blend of many genres: historical fiction, fantasy, magical realism, women’s fiction… and it does credit to all of them. Perhaps just a really great novel, but for me, a tribute to powerful women then, now, and yet to come.

“She is a silhouette on the windowsill, an apparition in the alley, a woman there and gone again. She is a pocket full of witch-ways and a voice whispering the right words to the right woman, the clack of a cane against cobbles.”

Also, witchy as hell.


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