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 three Eastwood sisters join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten 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 must 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.
“Everyday sorts of women with everyday sorts of lives, not worth mentioning in any story worth telling. But tonight, beneath the Rose Moon of June, they are witches. They are crones and maidens, villains and temptresses, and all the stories belong to them.”
*crank up the dial to full volume of Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves AND Season of the Witch*
Well, well. What do we have here? An autumnal witchy treat that is slow paced with lush prose to make up one heck of a cosy yet magical read.
The Once and Future Witches follows the Eastwood Sisters – Beatrice Belladonna, Agnes Amaranth and James Juniper – who are reunited after years of estrangement. Not only do the sisters have to contend with reacquainting themselves with each other, but they have to face a dark magical presence infecting the city and the challenges of being women in the time of the suffragists movement.
The Once and Future Witches makes for a striking imagining of witchcraft in the time of women’s suffrage, blended together to tell the tale of challenging the social strata of women and their oppression, alongside the everlasting bond of family, the importance of community, the desire for a better world and the value of one’s self to be realised.
”Aren’t you tired yet? Of being cast down and cast aside? Of making do with crumbs when once we wore crowns? She’s asking: Aren’t you angry yet?”
Where to begin with this story? There’s so much I want to say and so much I felt whilst reading it.
I’ll get my one and only issue out the way, spick and span, swiftly. The Once and Future Witches is a long drawn story, that consequently leads to the feeling of a tiresomely slow paced read. I remember reading at least 3 chapters that served no great enough purpose for the extra pages they added to the bulk of the book. I could’ve skipped them and would’ve been none the wiser of having missed anything, because, I really wouldn’t have. If you’re like me and squeeze reading into a busy lifestyle, it can be rather annoying when you feel any spare and precious time is used on chapters that aren’t in the grand scheme of things entirely necessary.
And with that, now let me go on to tell you all the reasons I loved this book.
It’s amazing how intricately Harrow connected the fight for empowering women with the fight for the freedom of witches. Witchcraft is treated, as usual and as history shows us, with great suspicion and deemed criminally offensive. Witches and accused witches have been burnt at the stake, and considering the lack of equality between men and women, the women of New Salem are prepared to take a stand for a better world, with a great big shove from Juniper. Juniper kickstarts the Sisters of Avalon – a group to bring women brought together to realise their worth, share and learn the practice of magic and take up the good fight for their liberty.
Harrow’s reimagining of women’s suffrage in the context of a world with known witchcraft is cleverly crafted and rather refreshing. Without a doubt it gives new life force to a history that may otherwise bore some readers, but with this story, they’d be made aware of its existence in an exciting way due to the inclusion of magic and covens. The magic involved in this story is everyday magic I would love to have. It’s easily believed as maybe possible and I’ve found myself IRL often doing something and imagining so. I absolutely loved how the elements of witchcraft could help with such everyday tasks and then in the next breath kill somebody.
As for the main three, the beauty of Harrow’s use of a classic trio is that we get the full package of different characters. You’ve got the silent mousey but wise type with the eldest sister, the brooding cynical/stern but strong type with the middle and then the hilariously wild and dangerous youngest sister. Juniper was my favourite of the sisters as she often made me laugh whilst simultaneously pulled on my heartstrings. But truly all three of them had their moments of my appreciation and also great annoyance. Each of the sisters have their own arc which was enjoyable, particularly when they interconnected with each other. It provided the dimensions of sibling drama and heartfelt sisterhood.
And I can’t tell you how emotional this book made me at its end. At this time of reading The Once and Future Witches, I’m going through a very difficult time emotionally, and I hand on heart can’t say if that was a contributing part of my emotional response or not, but what I’m certain of is I really needed this story. The Eastwood sisters and the Sisters of Avalon were the extended family/company I didn’t know I needed. I felt the support, the love and unity the women in this story offered one another as if it was extended to me.
”It used to be witches were wild as crows and fearless as foxes, because magic blazed bright and the night was theirs.”
The prose found in this book is a wholesome production; a little bit lyrical, a little bit simple and entirely beautiful. Harrow’s writing was comforting yet equally captivating – even Harrow’s acknowledgements were beautifully written. I really enjoyed the Old Salem/New Salem portrayal, it reminded me very much of The Great Gatsby’s East Egg/West Egg contrast. And the characters were easy to care for and feel invested in due to how authentically they were conveyed.
Akin to the witchyness of Practical Magic, I’ve chewed on this for the past day, and whilst I felt The Once and Future Witches was overly long, I really loved this book and would happily reread it in the future. So it’s getting all the stars. It’s easy to get lost in this witchy world and I’d love to see it developed into a movie or TV series. Or maybe even a sequel for the Sisters of Avalon or Daughters of Tituba… so please excuse me whilst I do and cast some spells for this to happen.
And lastly, I’ve had The Ten Thousand Doors of January on my shelf/TBR for so long now, and after my love for The Once and Future Witches, I’ll be making it a priority to read it soon.
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
Published October 2020
Genre: fantasy, witches, historical fiction