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

‘Or perhaps for all of them: for the little girls thrown in cellars and the grown women sent to workhouses, the mothers who shouldn’t have died and the witches who shouldn’t have burned. For all the women punished merely for wanting what they shouldn’t.’

Every year since I was 3, I used to dress up as a witch for Halloween. In true Irish 90’s Halloween fashion, it was usually a dodgy latex nose, a pointed hat and a black bin liner over my clothes. I loved it. When I was 23, finished college and totally lost, I turned back to that love. I still wear a pentacle necklace I bought back then today. Now those witches are in books, and I’m living in a pandemic. These were the witches I needed now and my entire life.

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

I think the hardest thing to pull off for any writer is writing fantastical or speculative fiction within a historical setting, and make it work. Harrow has really shaped this story of 3 sisters, the importance of stories and pulled in the suffragette movement and just created something so wonderful my heart actually aches thinking of it. I’ve gushed over Harrow’s writing in the past on my blog so it will come as no surprise to anyone that I’m still in awe at what she achieved here. The story never lets you go for a minute, the writing is descriptive and beautiful right down to the words for the spells. A description that really caught my heart:

‘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.’

Outside of the writing and the amazing way the story ties itself together, is the story of the Eastwood sisters. Three women, torn apart by trauma, a time that is determined to see them punished for breathing and all running from an abusive home. There is no way I found to see yourself in one of the sisters, but there’s a bit of each of them I can see in my own personality and I think that’s one of the things that people will hang on to after reading this book. We have Bella, Agnes and June, all born in that order. All three of them fighting, running and turning back to each other in times of need. I can’t pick out just one but all of them together were very distinctly themselves while all not being painted as ‘the good ones’. They have all fucked up and they are all fixing that.

Outside the hard way I fell for the characters, I truly adored the magic system. The oral tradition of passing on stories, ideas and just general teaching in secret is something that is very present in Ireland. Hedge schools were dangerous to be part of but they were vital to the preservation of our language and traditions over the years. The fact the most powerful magic or ‘witching’ is passed on in stories, rhymes, from mothers to daughters before they marry, among exploited workers and hidden in plain sight is just very real. It’s so realistic, if that is even possible for a magic system. The different types of witching among BIPOC people, different cultures, right down to men having some of their own was the final touches that really made this book stand out so much for me.

I will say, I am a white, cis reviewer here. I can’t speak for BIPOC experience or for anyone from a marginalised group but one thing I wanted to mention was the fact there are characters of colour and a trans character in this story. The modern way of telling stories of the suffragette movement is very selective and paints a very white picture so it is worth noting that their presence is noted here. The trans person as well is very small and a passing mention I will say but the fact it’s even mentioned without tokenisation is something worth noting.

This was honestly one of the best books I read this year and it’s honestly the best possible follow up that could have come after The Ten Thousand Doors of January. I am so fortunate to have received an advanced copy of this chonky read and want to thank both Nazia and Orbit Books for sending me a copy of this to review. Thanks for checking in everyone, happy reading!

★★★★★/5

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Priyasha says:

    Great review 🎈🍕

    Like

    1. Thank you so much Priyasha!

      Like

  2. I loved this book, brilliant review.👍📚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Drew, loved your review as well! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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