Alix E. Harrow stunned readers last year with her debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January. Now just a year later she follows up that title with her magical sophomore title: The Once and Future Witches. The story follows three sisters in an alternate history version of the U.S. where witchcraft is real historical fact. In this world the witches of Salem were powerful women who claimed the city for their own. Before they were burned alive. Laws were enacted to keep women in their place, and to outlaw witchcraft. But the practice lives on in the small spells and work of women who learned from their mothers and grandmothers. And at a time when women are seeking equal rights, this trio of sisters work to uncover the secret to ancient magic and lost knowledge that could restore witching to the world.
Let’s take a look at The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, and learn why this magical book should absolutely be on your October reading list. (Also please enjoy this little book photo-shoot I did of my Advanced Reader Copy from Orbit Books on my Mabon altar. Blessed Be.)
The Power of Three In The Once and Future Witches
Photo by Emily O’Donnell
Three is a very powerful number in witchcraft and that point is made repeatedly in The Once and Future Witches. There are three sisters at the heart of the story. Bella is the oldest; the wise one, the bookworm, the one who was punished harshly for her ‘sins.’ Agnes is the middle sister; the strong one, the hard worker, the substitute mother figure. Juniper is the youngest; the wild one, the one who has tasted darkness and power. She is the one who was left behind by the other two, and her bitterness and resentment towards her sisters blinds her to the reality of their situations.
The three sisters were raised by an abusive father who repeatedly told them that they were nothing. Their mother died in childbirth, when Juniper was born. But they learn the ways of the witching from their grandmother Mags, a powerful figure in each sister’s memory. When the books opens, Juniper has just arrived in New Salem after fleeing her home and her own terrible deeds. She doesn’t know that her sisters are also in the city. Until they collide at a suffragette rally where a powerful magical event occurs and changes the course of their stories.
Each sister is an example of an archetype that exists within witchcraft. And each of them mirrors legendary figures of their own world who are referred to as The Last Three. These were powerful witches who recur throughout the story as mythology – appearing in many of the fairy tales interspersed throughout the novel. These three are referred to by popular pagan archetypes for the goddess: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone.
A World Where Witches Are Real and Powerful
Photo by Emily O’Donnell
The alternate history of The Once & Future Witches is done incredibly well. Often I take issue with alternate history novels where world events played out exactly the same as our own. Despite the presence of time-travel or magic. But author Alix E. Harrow does an incredible job building a world that is close to our own, but not quite the same. This is a world that has been fundamentally changed by magic. And every change is believable and builds an incredibly vivid and complex world.
One of the most significant changes is that the Brothers Grimm are now the Sisters Grimm, and the fairy tales they wrote down were far more than fables to teach children a lesson. Instead the tales help to shape the current events in the story, as well as providing vital historical information about the history of witching in the world. Not only do the stories contain clues to powerful spells, they also act as allegories for women’s power and how it has been stripped away due to patriarchal fears.
The integration of the fairy tales into the story is beautifully done. They are interspersed throughout the novel as standalone stories that inevitably tie into a major event or circumstance that one of the characters is grappling with. Each one is a new take on a familiar fairy tale, but from the female perspective. Reading these reimagined fairy tales felt like finally uncovering the truth behind each one. We are familiar with the witches of fairy tales, but these new interpretations give them identity and in that humanization there is power untold.
The Power of Women In A World That Fears Them
Image via Orbit Books
Much of the story in The Once and Future Witches is about women seeking power they have been denied. The novel takes place in the 1890’s, and collides with the suffragette movement in the United States. Initially drawn to a group of women seeking to obtain power in a man’s world, the sisters quickly learn that witchcraft is hated and feared by other women as much as men.
The politics of The Once and Future Witches is nuanced and fascinating. It takes a hard look at the suffragette movement and their willingness to not only exclude witches, but also women of color. Alongside this is a political candidate who rails against women, witches, and suffragettes alike. He campaigns on a platform of fear and terror, and there is some dark magic at work that the sisters must face. The villains of this book are not only men, they are men with power who abuse it to keep women in their ‘place’ as they see it. This undoubtedly has real-world parallels that are hard to miss. Corruption, police brutality, and misogyny are the tools these men and the government wield to keep witching out of the world, and to keep women powerless.
The political themes of the book make it incredibly timely, and also timeless. In a world where government corruption, police brutality, misogyny, and fear of the ‘other’ runs rampant the novel reflects on our own society in a powerful way. The fact that this book is also coming out just weeks before the most important election of our lives is not a coincidence. The story urges women to stand up, speak out, claim our own power, and change the world.
Diversity And Unity In The Once and Future Witches
Photo by Emily O’Donnell
The timely nature of The Once and Future Witches is far from the only reason to read this book. The story is incredibly character-driven and has a huge ensemble cast who somehow manage to stand out with their own personalities as much as the Eastwood sisters. One of my favorite characters in the book was Cleo Quinn. A black woman and a journalist who becomes close to Bella. Quinn is a complex character who has struggled to make her own way in the world and obtain power that has been denied not only to her, but her entire race.
The novel takes the time to examine the black community in New Salem. How their magic differs from their white counterparts, and how they survive in a world that hates them as much as it hates witches. Although the novel is technically a period piece, the progressive nature of witchcraft allows for more diverse representation that would be anachronistic in any other text. Here, it works and works well to create a powerful sense of hope and joy even in the shadow of pain and oppression.
The Once and Future Witches Is One of The Best Books of The Year
Photo by Emily O’Donnell
The Once and Future Witches will draw you in and cast a spell on you like no other. Each of the three sisters is distinctly defined, with strong personalities. But they are also incredibly relatable, as are most of the women in the book. It is easy to find a character to identify with, to fall in love with, to see your own power reflected back at you. Alix E. Harrow spins a delightful web that tells fundamental truths beneath the fiction of it all. She is an author to watch, a powerful voice that undoubtedly has more stories to tell.
The writing style of the novel is lyrical and vivid. It draws from the poetic imagery of fairy tales, and cleverly subverts the familiar into the magical. The incorporation of stories within stories make the novel incredibly meta at times. And inherent in its core is an ode to the power of words and stories. The stories we tell – with their hidden meanings and magic. Stories we tell about ourselves – and the power that we have. The power to create life and destroy it, the magic to empower or oppress. The power to change the world, and ourselves.
The Once and Future Witches is not only one of the best fantasy books I’ve read this year. It is one of the best books of any genre that I’ve read this year. It is an incredible ode to the power of sisterhood, and the magic we can create when women come together with purpose. Highly recommended as a witchy October read, The Once and Future Witches is out on October 13, 2020 from Orbit Books.
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.