The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Brilliant again. I have a new favorite author. Write more, Alix Harrow.

There’s no such thing as witches, but there used to be.

James Juniper Eastwood is the youngest of three sisters, the one left behind. Their mother died when Juniper was born; their late grandmother, Mama Mags, had been a beloved teacher and friend, but their father was abusive. As the book begins, this youngest sister – the wild, reckless one – has left her family’s rural land and headed into the city of New Salem, a fugitive from justice and alone in the world. Imagine her surprise when she immediately encounters the middle sister, the strongest and the beauty, Agnes Amaranth, and the eldest, Beatrice Belladonna, a bookish woman (quiet, listening) now working as (of course) a librarian. She is further surprised to learn that Agnes and Beatrice have not been in touch since they left her behind all those seven years ago.

So opens The Once and Future Witches in the spring of 1893. New Salem is vibrating with the tension of women’s suffrage and the backlash of a mayoral candidate who claims to offer “light against the darkness” but would really like to reinstate Old Salem’s treatment of suspected witches. Both issues turn on the question of women’s power, or whether they should have any at all. Juniper is predictably full-speed-ahead, unhesitant to stop at any mean’s – including Mama Mags’s spells or wholesale violence – to advance women’s freedoms. Beatrice is inclined to keep her head down. Agnes has been working hard to scrape a living on a mill girl’s salary, and she’s just discovered that she’ll need to scrape as well for the baby she’s carrying. However, despite their wishes, it seems that the Eastwood sisters are tied to each other’s fates – and to the possible return of the Lost Tower of Avalon and the Last Three, Maiden, Mother and Crone, those fabled witches from back when women held real power.

Witching has perhaps not died out entirely. “Back home every mama teaches her daughters a few little charms to keep the soup-pot from boiling over or make the peonies bloom out of season. Every daddy teaches his sons how to spell ax-handles against breaking and rooftops against leaking.” “Witch-blood runs thick in the sewers,” it’s said: poor folk have held onto the minor spells and charms longer than respectable ones have. And if witching sounds very gendered so far, never fear. The Eastwood sisters will explore all sorts of boundaries, including the question of whether men can work women’s magic and vice versa, and whether those categories even make sense. They will find romance with people of various genders; they will reassess the archetypes of Maiden, Mother and Crone. (“Every woman is usually at least one of those. Sometimes all three and a few others besides.”) They will learn to question what it really takes to be a witch in the first place.

This novel is a lightning-paced, page-turning read at over 500 pages; but it does a lot of twisty-turny work in that space, too, and I don’t want to do much plot summary for fear of spoilers. Harrow’s world-building is delightful, but part of the delight is watching the rules shift and change. The sisters do band together, and there are big fights to be fought, along with the other women – and men, and people who challenge those labels – of this big, diverse, fascinating world. (The novel remains set in New Salem, but the battles are decidedly global.) I love how intersectional are the issues: the vote for women, witchcraft, labor rights, class, race, sexuality and gender, pockets. (“This is the precise reason why women’s dresses no longer have pockets, to show they bear no witch-ways or ill intentions.”)

I adore these characters, and the way they both play to type (Maiden, Mother, Crone) and subvert them. Juniper is obviously a hero – she’s the one who knows that “the trick to doing something stupid is to do it very quickly, before anyone can shout wait!” But Agnes and Bella (who eventually drops the more staid ‘Beatrice’ for her mother’s-name, Belladonna) offer perhaps more depths and complexities. Juniper’s devotion to the cause, and to her sisters, could hardly be questioned; but because they spread their loyalties a little further, Agnes and Bella arguably have to make harder choices to stand by what they believe in. There are many loveable, interesting secondary characters, but it is Miss Cleo Quinn, fearless Black journalist and very special friend to one of the Eastwoods in particular, who holds the fourth spotlight on this stage. She has secrets and baggage of her own, but once committed, she never looks back. A handsome union organizer and an older librarian show that men have a lot to offer in this world, too. And that “men really ought to try offers of fealty rather than flowers” more often.

There is so much to love here. Complex plotting, thorough world-building, lovely, growing-and-changing characters, humor, romance, intersectionality, women’s rights, librarians and scholars, badassery. I’m completely sold, just need more from this author.


Rating: 9.5 snake’s teeth.

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