Monday, 12 October 2020

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

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

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The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Published: 13th Octover 2020 | Publisher: Orbit | Cover Designer: Lisa Marie Pompilio | Source: Publisher
Alix E. Harrow's Website

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.
From Goodreads.

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I received this eProof for free from Orbit via NetGalley for the purposes of providing an honest review.

Rep: Disabled protagonist; lesbian protagonist; Black, lesbian main character, trans woman secondary character, Native American secondary characters.


The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow sounded right up my street when I first heard of it, but I didn't realise just how incredible it was going to be!

In a world where magic is all but gone, where the witches of the past were burned, where witchcraft is illegal, with women only knowing small, harmless spells, shared down the generations through stories and nursery rhymes, where women have next to no rights... the Eastwood sisters James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna have not seen each other or had any contact for the past seven years, due to an abusive father and overwhelming betrayal. Juniper is running to somewhere new, trying to escape; Agnes is a millworker, working long hours, keeping everyone at a distance; Bella is a librarian, books and words more a home to her than the room she lives in. All in New Salem. On the night of the Spring Equinox 1893, the three meet again when they are all inexplicably drawn to St. George's Square, where the Women's Association are holding a rally, trying to draw more women to their cause. Out of nowhere, a tower, surrounded by roses and ivy, appears in the square, with the wrong constellations in the night sky. Despite the past, the sudden appearance and disappearance of this tower is the catalyst that bring the Eastwood sisters back together, striving for a new life, a better life, for women, a life where women are witches, and as powerful as they once were. Witch those small, harmless spells, they join the suffrage movement, founding the Sisters of Avalon, recruiting like-minded women, who will fight with their magic to bring about change. But there are those who will do all they can to keep women underfoot, controlled and obedient, and magic all but stamped out. When shadows are alive, a sickness is spreading, and witch burnings are still a very real threat, the Eastwood sisters and their fellow Sisters must find a way to bring back magic, before they themselves are found.

Oh my god, The Once and Future Witches is just epic! It's quite a long story, but so much happens! It's just amazing! It's alternate history where witches of the fantasy kind did once exist, and were strong and powerful, until the patriarchy took over and witches were burned into practically inexistence. The quote, "We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn't burn," definitely applies to the Eastwood sisters. While they all have their own stories, their own histories, the betrayals and hurt between them, they all have a white hot flame in their souls. They are past accepting the lives they are given, they are expected to live, the way the patriarchy wants them to be small and quiet and subservient. Powerless. Controlled. Together, the flame they each have becomes a burning, blazing fire!

The story is told from each sister's perspective. The youngest at 17, Juniper is the angriest. She is wild and reckless, and can't - won't - sit back and do nothing. The middle sister at 22, Agnes is the most careful, the fiercest. She is pregnant, an unmarried soon-to-be mother - a scandal - but she will do absolutely whatever it takes to keep her baby safe, and woe betide anyone who dares even think of hurting the little life growing inside her. The eldest at 24, Bella is the quietest, the more reserved and nervous, the one the world has forced into hiding - and hiding from - a part of her that is integral to who she is, but the smartest, whose ideas and note-taking and research they all depend on. None of these women are perfect, but they're all amazing. I related to them all, but I also saw aspects of myself in them. I fell in love with all three of them.

The magic in this book is so familar. There are three parts to magic: the ways, the words, and the will. Each spell requires ways, certain items - herbs, animal teeth, hair, chalk, etc. - and emotion, words to said to cast the spell, and the will to make it happen. Witching, as it's called in the book, is described as a conversation with the red heartbeat of magic, which I think is just gorgeous. While it's fantasy magic, it's clearly inspired by traditional magic. Mama Mags, the Eastwood sisters' grandmother, was clearly a Wise Woman, with herbs drying in her house, jars full of innumerable things, a witch garden. The witch ways are all things us real witches might use. The Maiden, Mother and Crone archetypes are integral to this story, which just made my heart sing.

Stories and nursery rhymes also play a huge part. The ways and words have been hidden in plain sight within them. There are so many fairy tales - or witch-tales, as they're called in The Once and Future Witches - and nursery rhymes that you'll know, though have been changed to not only suit this particular story, but to also make them feminist retellings - because some of the stories are retold in full throughout. What I absolutely loved was how these stories are also possible histories, in a round about way, and how witches were in every one. Most male characters in our stories are female in witch-tales. Almost all female characters are witches, or alluded to being witches; they're referred to, most often, as the Maiden and the Crone. Not all witches are wicked, and perhaps those that are had a reason to be, or their wickedness isn't what it first seemed. And the authors of these stories, in this alternate history, are female: the Brothers Grimm are the Sisters Grimm, Charles Perrault is Charlotte Perrault, Andrew Lang is Andrea Lang, and they're folklorists. I bloody loved this whole aspect, how feminist it is, but also the whimsy of it, the words and ways for spells contained in stories for children. I just love it!

There's discussion on how witching itself isn't wicked, rather that it's down to the witch and her ways, which I feel touches on the conversation around "white magic" and "black magic"(which has horrible racial undertones), and how magic itself is neautral. There's also the discussion of how witching - the ways and the words particularly - are different in different cultures. Black people have their own way of witching, as do Native American people. It's not all the same - and it's not all available for everyone (read: white people). There's a point where Juniper gets a little frustrated that Gertrude, a Native American member of the Sisters of Avalon, won't share the witch-ways and words she knows, and Gertrude kindly but firmly tells her that not all ways are hers, which touches on cultural appropriation. This all speaks to real witchcraft.

Which leads me to how diverse this story is. Juniper is disabled; she injured her foot in a fire years ago, and it's left her with a permanent limp and the need of a staff. And while it's not outright stated, it's strongly alluded to that she could be asexual. There are two gay women, Bella and Cleo - there is a gorgeous slow burn romance between Bella and Cleo that is just so beautiful! - and two women who if not specifically gay, are at least not straight - one of whom is also trans. Cleo and the Daughters of Tituba are Black, and as I've mentioned there are Native American characters, too. I should point out that what is considered racist language today is used - Black people are "colored" and Native Americans are "Indians" - but it's appropriate to the time the story is set, and never used derogatively. This book does feature racism and homophobia, as well as the obvious misogyny, but almost never from the protagonists (there's one moment where Juniper admits to feeling uncomfortable about Bella and Cleo's relationship, but Agnes gives her a talking to, and she gets over it). All forms of bigotry in this book - and there is a fair amount given the time it's set - are very clearly not ok both in the minds of the protagonists, and how the story is told. I'm massively privileged, so could be wrong, but I feel it's all dealt with, with respect.

I also really loved the real history in this book. The American suffrage movement, and exactly what life was like for women before they got the vote, the oppression they suffered. But also the discussion of witch trials. This is a fantasy story with fantasy magic, but it acknowledges the very real witch hunts and witch trials of the past - and because of what the Sisters of Avalon are doing, the fact that witchcraft is illegal, and who is in charge, it brings them to the present day of the story. Harrow does not shy away from the terrible things accussed witches suffered. We see the beatings, the torture, the witch trial, and the burning of witches. Very real history is present in this alternate history historical fantasy. The mysogyny, racism, homophobia of the time is bad enough, but the witch hunt/trial makes for an incredibly horrific story. Your blood will boil, you will be raging - but you'll also be inspired and empowered by the fight of these women who won't give up, who refuse to be subjugated. The Once and Future Witches is an unbelievably powerful novel.

This review is already so long, and I've barely scratched the surface. The Once and Future Witches is an incredibly epic story where so much happens, with so much action and danger, with strong themes of power and agency and sisterhood. It's gripping, exciting, and enraging. It's full of hope and passion and strength and love. It's just brilliantly fantastic, and I can't recommend it enough.

Thank you to Orbit via NetGalley for the eProof.

You might also like:

Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan Impossible Causes by Julie Mayhew Perfectly Preventable Deaths by Deirdre Sullivan

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Have you read any novels that combine witchcraft and feminism, or witchcraft and activism? Have you read any novels that use fairy tales in creative ways? Have you read, or will you be reading The Once and Future Witches? Let me know in the comments!

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