THE ONCE AND FUTURE WITCHES by Alix E. Harrow (Book Review)
Settle down dear reader, make yourself comfortable, Alix E Harrow is about to tell you a different kind of fairytale…
During the year of 1893 the oppression of women was beginning to fissure – the suffragettes were on the warpath fighting for change. No longer did women want to live in a world ruled solely by men, no longer were women to be silenced. You see the world used to be a place where women held great power – the power of the words, the will and the ways. Magic was their domain, it was deep within their very bones, and with witchcraft came the sweet aroma of strength. However, as all stories go, this didn’t last forever, magic was lost – now only remembered in parts, a forbidden secret cloaked in hushed whispers and hidden words, a punishable crime. Women became lesser in the eyes of men, they became subservient, forgotten, abused. In New Salem, the suffragettes may want to protest and march for the right for women to vote, but there are three sisters who wanted so much more.
Once again Harrow’s writing is nothing short of bewitching – her enchanting lyrical prose is one that wraps itself around you and pulls you into the story. The Once and Future Witches may only be Harrow’s second full-length novel but it certifies her as an author who deserves the highest of praise.
Although The Ten Thousand Doors of January and The Once and Future Witches are vastly different in a lot of ways, they are also undeniably connected by themes of fighting against prejudice, both gender and racially based, and more predominantly the importance of storytelling. As I was reading this novel, the Fantasy Hive were running a Women in SFF feature, and therefore we interviewed Harrow. Here’s a particular quote I loved –
‘narrative is baked deep in our DNA, and there’s a certain power in drawing those stories to the surface.’
The kind of stories Harrow creates in both her books feel familiar and fresh in the same instance; not only that but they are stories of female characters who find themselves to be worthy of so much more, ones where they find they can shape the way their own story unfolds.
‘Once there was a girl who rose like a phoenix from her mother’s ashes and winged into the light of some better, brighter world.’
In this case we follow the story of the three Eastwood sisters – Bella, Agnes and Juniper.
The relationship between them is raw, fiery, beautiful but oh so painful. Bonded and broken by their cruel violent father, the sisters have been apart for several years. Bridges have been burnt, old slights have festered, but can a common purpose bring them together? Can wounds ever heal? Harrow depicts the sisters in such vivid captivating ways; they may all three be distinct but there is something about each of them which we the reader can relate to or empathise with. We feel Agnes’ weariness, her life experiences weighing her down. We understand Bella’s need to find answers in books, her absolute trust in words to find a solution. We are one with Juniper’s anger, her need to lash out at an unjust world no matter the cost. That is where Harrow works some kind of sorcery – without even realising we become deeply connected to the sisters, their plight becomes ours. We are shown that throughout the ages women can be much more than the roles society places on them.
‘Juniper feels like a soldier with a loaded rifle, finally shown something she can shoot. Like a girl with a lit match, finally shown something she can burn.’
There were moments where I wanted to spend a little more time with each of the sisters, I wanted to gain that bit more knowledge of their past, but I would find fairly quickly the POV would switch, which made part one of the novel feel somewhat rushed. However, from part two and onwards the narrative effectively begins to explore revelations and I honestly couldn’t take my eyes off the pages as the tale began to spiral into intensely thrilling, delicious dark and heart-wrenching tunnels. I am not ashamed to admit this, I spent an entire afternoon in tears!
I do not say it lightly when I say magic bleeds from the very pages of this novel. I think for the majority of us, our earliest experiences of fantasy reside in fairytales. They are so prevalent within our childhood, and I for one love them – both then and now. Therefore, experiencing Harrow’s retellings of many of these classic tales, seeing her use the power of three, the notion of hidden magic buried in seemingly childish rhymes, both within the short interludes and in the main narrative, was a sheer delight. Especially as Harrow twists them in the most delectably entertaining ways.This may be a story about fairy tales but gone are the fair maidens in distress, gone are the evil crones, and gone are the fragile mothers – here is a tale about witches who will ignite the world.
‘Stories spin through Agnes’s head again, except this time she isn’t thinking of the dead mothers or their lost daughters. She’s thinking about the witches – the women who dispensed the glass slippers and curses and poison apples, who wreaked their wills on the world and damned the consequences.’
Arc provided by Orbit UK in exchange for an honest review. All quotes used are taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication. Thank you for the copy!
The Once and Future Witches is released on 15th October.