The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
Orbit, pb, £11.99
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
The year is 1893, James Juniper Eastwood comes to New Salem to escape her old life. She joins the suffragette movement, hoping to find other women like her, women who want more for their future, women who remember the words of power. But New Salem is a fearful place, memories of Old Salem and the countless women burned as witches linger on every street, making Juniper’s ambitions dangerous. Frustrated on all sides by men and the Women’s Christian Union, Juniper and her sisters, Agnes and Bella, set out to find the Lost Way of Avalon and create equality among the sexes.
Witches, suffragettes, women’s rights, when I heard about The Once and Future Witches, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. The combination of magic and women’s rights is innovative, drawing parallels between the two and the fear they inspire in men. It is written in the third person present tense and tends towards the literary style, which is something I usually don’t enjoy. However, peppered throughout are lines from the sisters, injecting the prose with their no-nonsense, strong personalities. These are often quite amusing, cutting straight to the bone, and bring the story to life.
I also enjoyed the broad scope of positive representation in The Once and Future Witches of minority groups. One of the main characters is a member of the LGBTQ community, and her partner is a black woman. This raises all sorts of prejudice against them while showing their affection for one another as being very pure and compassionate. Another sister is a single mother, willing to fight and sacrifice everything for her unborn child.
Also, among the varied female characters, some men stand out against the typical aggression and fear against the women. These men are supportive of women representing non-toxic male relationships which are based on respect rather than dominance or sex. Their inclusion was a brilliant move, rather than just painting all men as evil.
Another brilliant element for me was the discovery of the words of power. As witchcraft is so fear, nothing could be written down. Instead, spells were handed down in the oral tradition, bedtime stories and nursery rhymes. How Harrow takes well-known stories and turns their meaning into magic for harnessing was intelligent and well-thought-out.
While there was much I enjoyed, there were some elements I struggled with. The book is over 500 pages long, and I felt the pacing was off. The first half of the book felt very slow with lots of action, but not a lot happened.
When the three sisters, Juniper, Agne, and Bella, are introduced, they are obviously the maiden, the mother, and the crone. Throughout the book, they don’t alter much. Each had left their home because of who they were, a lesbian, a single mother, a wild force of nature, they had accepted themselves. I found that heavy-handed introduction and rigid sticking to personality type off-putting. What brought it back for me was the way they learned to put the skills of their ‘type’ to the benefit of others.
Although there were elements that didn’t work for me, The Once and Future Witches has an exciting premise and a strong representational cast with much to recommend it.