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.
Last year, I read Harrow’s debut novel (The Ten Thousand Doors of January) and it was easily one of my absolute favorite books of 2019. Well, Harrow has done it again. I’m glad I picked up The Once and Future Witches before 2020 was over so that I can happily say this book is absolutely one of my top favorite books of 2020.
Harrow created such an incredible story. I first want to talk about the powerful and stunning writing. I don’t often sticky tab my books, but I went through three packs of sticky tabs just marking lines that really stuck out to me. I cannot get enough of Harrow’s writing. I was in awe after her debut, but I am doubly in awe now. She has the ability and creativity to write such stunning prose that really packs a punch. I adored all of the little things too. The chapters starting with each sister and mimicking how they were all introduced, this continuing through the book when the sisters were apart. I just cannot get over how beautifully written this book was.
Now, the plot. It was just as excellent as the writing. We follow three sisters, James Juniper (June, the youngest sister), Agnes Amaranth (Agnes, the middle sister), and Beatrice Belladonna (Bella, the eldest sister). The sisters grew up in the south with a father that was abusive and a mother that died giving birth to June. When June was still just a kid, Agnes and Bella left and June felt abandoned. The two older sisters both had their reasons for leaving (yes, I did absolutely love how this aspect of the story came full circle when the two finally talked about it). Flash forward to present day, somehow, all three sisters have ended up in New Salem. June is hiding from the law, so of course, the first thing she does after arriving in New Salem is join in at a Suffragist protest where women are demanding their right to vote. Agnes is newly pregnant and works in a mill, living in a quiet boarding house. She’s unsure about keeping the baby and knows the father cannot love all of her. She’s walking home from work and also finds herself at this protest. Bella, a librarian, (yes, this is exactly the shit I live for, so thank you Alix Harrow) finds hidden words she remembers her grandmother, Mags, saying to them and she finds herself drawn to the protest and saying the words. Suddenly, there is a link between the sisters and Bella is saying the words. A tower appears and this is where the story starts. I don’t want to go too much into the plot except to say that it was a slow story, but I devoured every page. I loved the meandering story that showed us who these sisters really were and would become. All three have issues from their childhood that they need to overcome, grudges to forgive one another for, and secrets they’re not sure they’re ready to share. I love these three with my whole heart.
I do want to mention that the side characters are just as incredible as the sisters. There are a diverse cast of supporting characters, from black female love interests (yes, there is indeed a female/female romance, thank you again for this), to a trans woman. I love that though this is a historical story, there were still diverse characters that were included. I can’t speak to the representation as I am not trans or black, but from an outside perspective these characters seemed to be portrayed thoughtfully and with purpose. I liked that the female love interest was black because it brought this new perspective of what life in New Salem during this time period was like for people of color, something the sisters might not have thought about.
The magic in The Once and Future Witches was absolutely fascinating. Each chapter was started with a spell. In this story, you must know the words, the ways, and have the will. I thought this was such an interesting way to do magic. I really liked the messages that were shared with the magic. That women are powerful and smart. They know not to write these things down and instead pass them to their daughters in songs, children’s rhymes, and things that men wouldn’t even suspect. I adored the magic and the way that women came together to work this magic and teach one another the few things they’d learned in their lives.
Overall, this is absolutely one of my favorite books of 2020. Harrow is easily a favorite author of mine and I am dying to know what she will publish next. This book and everything about it was nothing short of a stunning master piece and I already cannot wait to reread so I can highlight and underline all of my favorite parts. If you like witches, historical fiction, women empowering other woman, and diverse stories, then this is the book for you.
“One witch you can laugh at. Three you can burn. But what do you do with a hundred?”
“If he peeled back her pretty skin he’d find nothing soft or sweet at all, just busted glass and ashes and the desperate, animal will to stay alive.”
“That’s all magic is, really: the space between what you have and what you need.”
“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.”
“Because it’s easy to ignore a woman.” Juniper’s lips twist in a feral smile. “But a hell of a lot harder to ignore a witch.”
“Seems to me they’re the same thing, more of less. Witching and women’s rights. Suffrage and spells. They’re both…They’re both a kind of power, aren’t they? The kind we aren’t allowed to have.”
“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.”
Keep on reading lovelies, Amanda.