Published by Orbit on October 13, 2020
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Fiction, Paranormal
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FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.
Alix E. Harrow’s new novel The Once and Future Witches is at its heart a story about reclaiming one’s power, specifically power that men have historically denied and/or taken from women. The story is set in 1893 in the town of New Salem and right in the heart of the women’s suffrage movement. The Once and Future Witches is also a story about sisterhood, both in the sense of the sisterhood of women fighting to make their voices heard at the ballot box, and in the sense that the three protagonists are actually sisters and specifically sisters who have been raised to embrace magic even though magic and witches have been gone for a long time. Although they have been separated for years, the sisters find themselves inexplicably drawn to the location of the latest suffragette rally and therefore back to each other. When an unexplainable event also happens at the rally, the sisters take their reunion and this supernatural occurrence as a sign that magic is trying to return and that they should help it along and perhaps recruit some suffragettes to their cause, thereby combining the women’s movement and the witches’ movement into one major force to be reckoned with.
I honestly adored everything about this book! I thought the overall theme of women reclaiming their power, whether through magic or through securing the right to vote for themselves, was wonderful and I thought using the women’s movement as well as witches and magic to symbolize that theme and bring it to life was brilliant since it highlights both the historical and modern society since as women, we are still having to fight for equality at almost every turn. I also loved that Harrow truly brings this theme into the present by having a diverse cast that features both women of color as well as LGBTQ characters.
Speaking of the cast of characters, while I don’t want to give any details of the plot itself away, I do want to talk about the three sisters because they were all such incredible characters, just so well drawn and complex. James Juniper is the first sister we meet. She’s the youngest and is a bit of a wild child. She’s incredibly brave and forthright and has no filter whatsoever. You just never know what’s going to come out of her mouth. She also holds a major grudge against her two older sisters because they both ran away from home and left her behind to contend with an abusive father. Then there’s Beatrice Belladonna, the oldest and most wary of the sisters. Beatrice is into books and not much else, although she does have an interest in magic. She works as a librarian and in her spare time has delved into the library’s collection of books from Old Salem, trying to find hidden or long-forgotten spells. Lastly, there’s Agnes Amaranth, the middle sister. She’s the most nurturing of the sisters, practically taking on the role of Juniper’s mom after their mom died. The dynamic between Juniper, Beatrice, and Agnes is so complicated and I found myself completely invested, both in their adventures to bring back magic and witches, and most especially in their emotional journey to work through the pain of the past and get back to each other.
The overall themes of The Once and Future Witches are compelling and the characters are fabulous, but I can’t forget to mention the real stars of the show, Harrow’s masterful ability to weave together a beautiful, atmospheric, and intricate story and her gorgeous prose. This book was an absolute dream to read from start to finish, and I especially loved her use of popular childhood nursery rhymes as a way to camouflage witchy spells.
If you’re into witchy reads and feminist themes, you definitely want to check out The Once and Future Witches. It’s the best of both worlds. Truly a magical read!