Book Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Redhook (October 13, 2020)
Length: 528 pages
You know how much I adore a good witchy tale, and with The Once and Future Witches, author Alix E. Harrow has delivered another rich and powerful novel to satisfy my heart’s desire. From the mind who brought us The Ten Thousand Doors of January comes this historical fantasy that will appeal to fans of feminist fiction and family sagas that blend together magic, folklore, and alternate history.
Once upon a time, there were three sisters. When their mother died, the girls were raised by a bitter and uncaring father who treated them like dirt. Beatrice Belladonna Eastwood is the oldest daughter and also the bookish one, who left to pursue a career as a librarian. The middle daughter, Agnes Amaranth, also went out into the world and got a job as a factory worker. That left youngest and wildest James Juniper all by herself to deal with their cruel and abusive father, and she has never forgiven her sisters for it.
Now it is the year 1893, and society is on the cusp of great change. In New Salem, the sky rips open and a mysterious tower manifests in the town square while a suffragist rally occurs nearby, and having dedicated her life to studying the history and folklore of witching, Beatrice “Bella” knows it for a sign that magic has returned to the world. As fate would have it, the moment also reunites the three sisters who all happened to witness the phenomenon. Bella works at the local college, while Agnes finds herself preparing for single motherhood after discovering she is pregnant, and Juniper is a wanted woman on the run from the law. Whatever love there was between them is now gone, and the story begins with the three women barely tolerating each other.
However, they are forever bound by their shared lineage and a common goal. Together, the Eastwood sisters must find a way to heal past rifts in order to bring back real magic and repel the dark forces that seek to corrupt it for their own gain.
Above all else, The Once and Future Witches is a story about the importance of family and the role of forgiveness in building a future. It is also about fighting for those without a voice. The three sisters in this tale—Bella, Agnes, and Juniper—are individuals each with their own strengths and weaknesses, but together they are a force to be reckoned with. Harrow develops their personalities with a combination of the environment and their life experiences, making them believable and easy to relate to. They feel like genuine people reacting realistically to the hardships and obstacles thrown in their path. It’s not always pretty, but life—and magic—is chaotic.
Speaking of which, the idea of magical spells being hidden and preserved through history in nursery rhymes and fairy tales isn’t exactly new, but I liked how some of these stories were reimagined, which seemed to fit well in the alternate history context. I also thought it was important that magic didn’t belong to the any one person or group, like how men knew how to cast magic as well as various cultures that carried out their own unique traditions. With so much knowledge of witchcraft lost to time, there was also a layer of mystery that our characters had to unravel. I enjoyed watching the sisters discovering their power and developing their skills even as they worked towards reconciliation.
There’s also a good story here, and it’s beautifully written. In fact, my only criticism of it might be a lack of original ideas to set it apart, as thematically it does feel pretty similar to several other “witchy” feminist fantasy novels I’ve read in recent years. And while I appreciated the focus on our protagonists and their personal growth, I wish more attention had been paid to developing the setting as well as the actions of other characters like the suffragettes and the efforts of Cleopatra Quinn and her compatriots. Still, there’s no denying there’s a lot going on here, and in making this story all about the Eastwood sisters, I can even understand why there would be a need to sacrifice detail in other areas.
At the end of the day though, The Once and Future Witches was a fascinating read, and while the story might not be perfect, I think its emotional depth and uplifting messages of sisterhood are more than enough to make up for its minor flaws. Recommended for fans of historical fantasies and strong women characters, especially if you enjoy books with magical or witchy themes by authors like Naomi Novik or Louisa Morgan.