The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow—Book Review
Published by: Orbit.
Genres: Historical Fantasy.
Copy: Purchased at my local sci-fi bookstore. Support local, folks!
With Alix E. Harrow’s new novel, lightning strikes a second time. When The Ten Thousand Doors of January released last year, I knew Harrow’s work was something to look out for, and so did many others. It was that rare fantasy novel that showed an innate understanding of the power of storytelling while employing prose staggering in its beauty, and of a quality that was almost poetic.
The Once and Future Witches is a different beast, the language within its covers a whole lot more blunt—though the author’s style is no weaker. Indeed, Harrow shows some impressive writing chops both in fresh takes on familiar phrases (“June shoots a sideways look at bella, all prim and nervous, and hopes politicking proves thicker than blood.”), in similes and comparisons which reflect, reinforce and further differentiate character points of view (“His eyes were empty as promises.”), in breathtaking passages that will make your lips curl into a smile:
The problem with saving someone, Bella thinks, is that they so often refuse to remain saved. They careen back out into the perilous world, inviting every danger and calamity, quite careless of the labor it took to rescue them in the first place.
If you’ve ever had a friend, a sibling or loved one prone to getting themselves into trouble—well, you know how astute an observation this is. And that’s not the half of what Harrow does right in her writing. The language she deploys is at once gorgeous and capable of grasping your heart, squeezing it tight.
Our three sister-witches are Juniper, Agnes, and Bella Eastwood. If you’ve read Shakespeare, Pratchett, or are familiar with the Greek Fates, you will know there’s a certain set of roles a trio of witches will be drawn towards—the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone; so, too, here. Part of the joy in reading Witches comes from watching Harrow deconstruct these allegorical figures through the Eastwoods.
The sisters themselves each have beautiful arcs, which see them facing their fears and flaws, the shadow of an abusive father, and the relationship each has with the other two, stained by abandonment, lies and misunderstanding.
I categorize Witches as historical fantasy, despite it being, in the words of Alix E. Harrow, “full of lies.” And what glorious lies they are! Say goodbye to the Brothers Grimm and Alexander Pope and Charles Perrault, say hello to the Sisters Grimm and Alexandria Pope and Charlotte Perrault. Nifty, isn’t it? But beneath each lie is an echo of the truth, a powerful reminder of the injustices women have faced, as in:
Juniper read in the papers that forty-six women died in the fire, and another thirteen leapt from the high windows. “It’s company policy to lock the doors,” the owner argued in court. “So the girls don’t get shiftless.” He and his partner had paid a fine of seventy-five dollars.
This paragraph was inspired by a real event—the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire—that saw far more than six dead. Moments like this one deliver a special kind of poignancy that strikes at the subject matter that must’ve engaged the author in writing this novel. It couldn’t be a more timely novel, with women across the world still experiencing varying degrees of repression across the world—the serious recent set-backs where reproductive rights are concerned in many Southern states in the US, the abortion ban in Poland; these are but a handful of examples that make The Once and Future Witches’ subject matter more timely than even the author might’ve expected.
Yet again, Harrow offers up a villain who is as human as our protagonists are. They are, in fact, a foil to Juniper—a juxtaposition the author makes wonderful use of, more than once. The difference between this villain and the youngest Eastwood sister is, they have allowed fear to command and twist them up, until only the basest instincts of survival—some ghastly, twisted notion of the survival of the fittest—drives this villain to supreme acts of cruelty.
Lest you be one of those silly sausages that turn pale at the first mention of feminism in fantasy literature, rest assured, this novel has some wonderful male characters, too. Those who value compassion, who do not seek to possess women or to command them but to be their equals—there are fine examples of such supporting characters here.Then again, if you’ve read thus far, you already know not to worry about something silly like this…don’t you?
This is a feminist opus. It reimagines history with one stark difference—the possession of a weapon in women’s hands and on their lips, a tool to light the spark of rebellion against repression. But more, too; at the foundation of Harrow’s witchcraft is a simple, beautiful idea: magic is “the space between what you have and what you need.” For three sisters that begin a movement whose end goal is the empowerment of women, what more magical a thing could we readers ask for?
PS: A note on the spine of the Orbit paperback—it’s of surprising quality. Despite spending hours with the book wide open, there’s not a single crease—a small aside, but one worth mentioning.