The Once and Future Witches
by Alix E. Harrow
“A girl is such an easy thing to break: weak and fragile, all alone, all yours. But they aren’t girls anymore, and they don’t belong to anyone. And they aren’t alone.”
Published Oct. 13, 2020 by Orbit
Genre: historical fantasy
Date finished: Oct. 15, 2020
Content warnings: torture, mentions of abuse, racism, homophobia
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 thoughts (spoiler free)
Have you ever read a book that’s so good it makes you angry?
You think while reading: Somebody can just write this?? These words can exist in this order and be so beautiful and perfect, and I’m supposed to put this book down after and go on with my life??? How is that fair??
When I read The Ten Thousand Doors of January earlier this year, I thought there was no way Alix E. Harrow could possibly write another book that I loved just as much, but here she’s gone ahead and done it. While January sparkles with magic and wonder, though, Witches blazes and bares its teeth, angry and ferocious and breathtaking. If January is a sunrise, Witches is a crack of lightning.
“I am terrified and I am terrible. I am fearful and I am something to be feared.”
Set in 1893 in the city of New Salem, the story kicks off when the three Eastwood sisters reunite after years of separation. All of them have already been through hell in some way or another, and it’s not exactly a happy reunion—especially when it involves an accidental public display of witchcraft that sets the city aflame with fear.
In this version of history—slightly altered from our own but close enough to be easily recognizable—magic used to be everywhere. But centuries of witch hunts and burnings have succeeded in smothering it so all that’s left are the little charms passed down from woman to woman and carefully hidden away.
The three sisters, raised by an abusive father and a witchy grandmother, get involved in the women’s suffrage movement of New Salem and, eventually, set out to bring witchcraft back to the world.
James Juniper is the youngest, the wild one, unbroken by their father’s abuse, new to the city and craving an outlet for her anger. Agnes Amaranth is the middle sister, steady and cynical, worn down by a lifetime of mistreatment and wishing only to be left alone so no one else can hurt her. Beatrice Belladonna is the oldest, wise and bookish yet afraid to venture outside of the tight walls she’s built around her life.
“…Everything important comes in threes.”
These three women form the beating heart of this book. I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite because you can’t have one without the other two; they are inexorably entwined, bound together by blood or fate or magic, or maybe all three. Their sisterhood—complicated, fierce, broken, and absolute—was easily my favorite part of this book. And that’s saying something, considering how much I loved the whole thing.
Truly, this is a book that’s all about sisterhood, and not just these three. It’s about all women and the bonds they share, including women of color, queer and trans women, working class women, immigrant women, and more. It’s about the boxes and limitations that are placed on women, and how freeing it is when women dare to reach outside of those boxes. It’s about women who are powerful not in spite of their gender or the fact that they’ve been trodden down their whole lives, but because of that, because they’ve come back stronger.
Every word of this book burns: with hunger, with simmering rage, with injustice that’s been ignored for far too long. Not going to lie, it was incredibly cathartic to read. For months—maybe even years—I feel like I’ve had this anger boiling away inside of me, worsened by a sense of helplessness because there’s so little I can do to make the world less awful. It was nice to redirect my rage for a while toward something that has similarities to our world (a politician who hates women, greedy men taking advantage of their positions, a plague that those in power seem to do nothing about) but isn’t real life.
But even more than that, this book was a reminder that the fight always continues, even when things seem hopeless. Even if you can’t do everything, you can do something. It’s a reminder that, yes, the world is awful, but maybe if enough people care a lot and want to make it better, things can change. And this isn’t just a book about angry women—it’s about angry women who love one another, because rage alone won’t change the world. Honestly, I think that’s something we all need to read right now.
“She thinks how upside-down it is that she started this fight out of rage—spite and fury and sour hate—and that she’ll finish it for something else entirely.”
Alix E. Harrow’s writing is good it makes me want to give up, which is just about the highest endorsement I can give. I genuinely groaned out loud on the first page because it was gorgeous and I knew right away that I was going to love it. I don’t have the words to describe how incredibly well-written this book is, but luckily, those words already exist—just go read the book itself! Seriously. Read it.
I could probably keep going on and on for paragraphs about every single perfect aspect of this book, from its themes of storytelling and history and its unique magic to its subtle sense of humor and its truly horrifying and well-developed antagonist. But I really want you all to discover that for yourselves.
Basically, what I’m saying is: go read this book, because it’s absolutely one of my new favorites and you will not regret it. I think right now is the perfect time, not just because it’s October and, as everyone knows, fall=witches, but because the world basically sucks right now. And while this book won’t make it suck any less, it can at least remind you that there’s still a fight to be had as long as there are people willing to resist and women who reach out their hands to lift one another up. Plus, there’s magic and period clothing and intersectionality and libraries. What more could you possibly ask for?
“That’s all magic is, really: the space between what you have and what you need.”
*ARC PROVIDED BY EDELWEISS IN EXCHANGE FOR AN HONEST REVIEW. QUOTES ARE SUBJECT TO CHANGE.*