The Once and Future Witches

This one shouldn’t need any introduction. Alix Harrow’s follow-up to The Ten Thousand Doors of January has already been praised to the skies by many other critics. I can see why too. The Once and Future Witches is an engaging tale that mixes feminism, fairy tales and American history in an imaginative way. I expect to see this book on some award shortlists next year.

The book centres on the three Eastwood sisters: Bella, Agnes and June. They have survived an abusive father, though this has cost them their trust in each other. Part of the plot of the book revolves around how they learn to be sisters again.

The girls live in an alternate version of our world in which many famous figures from the past are gender-flipped, and in which magic works. Witches are greatly feared, at least by men. The city of Old Salem was burned to the ground because of its witchery. The Eastwood girls live in New Salem, the City Without Sin, that has risen to replace the old. But “without sin” seems to mean “women do what they are told by men”. Even some of the most law-abiding Christian ladies don’t see how being without sin means that they should be deprived of the vote. Thus women have become unhappy with their lot. Some, inevitably, will turn to witchcraft, and this in turn brings out the White Feminist tendency.

“I’m afraid you have entirely misunderstood our position. The Association has battled for decades to afford women the same respect and legal rights enjoyed by men. It is a battle we are losing; the American public still sees women as housewives at best and witches at worst. We may be either beloved or burned, but never trusted with any degree of power. […] I don’t know who was responsible for the abnormality at St. George’s, but I would turn her in myself before I let such activities destroy everything we’ve worked for.”

Bella is the oldest of the three. She’s a librarian by profession, unmarried and seemingly unmarriable. She appears old before her time. Agnes has work in a mill, which pays badly and is dangerous but is better than being on the street. She is pregnant, from a failed love affair, and considering abortion, which is of course illegal. June is the youngest. She’s new in town, freshly escaped from their father, thanks to his untimely death. She’s wild and passionate, though about feminism, not about men. You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Researching fairy tales in the library (she loves the work of the Sisters Grimm), Bella chances upon what appears to be a fragment of a spell to bring back the Lost Way of Avalon, the witching tradition for which Old Salem was burned. Avalon. Once and Future. It is a bit of a stretch, but I’ll forgive Harrow.

Meanwhile, all is not well in New Salem. A weaselly councilman called Gideon Hill is making a run for mayor. The basis of his campaign is that the city is in danger of falling into sin. I mean, suffragism, whatever next? Mr Hill, however, is not what he seems. There is something odd about his shadow.

While the core of the book is its feminist message, it makes a decent attempt to be intersectional. Bella strikes up a friendship with Miss Cleopatra Quinn, a journalist from the newspaper that caters to the city’s Black population. Agnes becomes friendly with Mr. August Lee, a champion of workers’ rights and a former comrade of the legendary Eugene Debs.

I have a sneaking suspicion that some Black critics may be less enthusiastic about the book. Cleo Quinn quickly becomes the calm, sensible heart of the narrative. The Eastwood girls all have their own personal demons to deal with before they can confront the real threat. They are also hopelessly naïve. Cleo and her community have had decades of experience of fighting white supremacy and are much better at the job. And yet Cleo is not the hero of the narrative. That honour goes to the white girls.

I’m also a little uneasy about some of the engine of the plot. In a truly great novel, plot twists seem inevitable as the narrative unfolds. In this book they seemed mostly sprung on us out of the blue in order to keep the narrative moving forward. I don’t think it detracts too much from the book, but if you have read as much as I have then it is something you tend to notice.

From my point of view, however, the main problem I had with the novel, which is not a bad thing, is that it was too personal. It is a story of a group of women struggling against seemingly overwhelming odds. The political system is stacked against them. Potential allies turn on them for fear of losing respectability, while others simply refuse to believe that a system that works fairly for them might not work fairly for others. Eventually a populist politician welds all of this into a mob, determined to seek and out and destroy those that he deems Other.

And of course I have no tradition of magic to fall back on.

“This fight.” […] “To just—live, to be—is one that I was signed up for before I was even born. I don’t get to walk away.”

Thanks Alix. I can’t offer bow or axe, or indeed spells, but you have my pen.

book cover
Title: The Once and Future Witches
By: Alix E Harrow
Publisher: Orbit
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
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