The Once and Future Witches
by Alix E. Harrow
Expected publication: October 13, 2020, by Redhook Books, an imprint of Orbit
Once upon a time, there were witches. But not anymore. Not since the burnings began and magic was looked upon as a sinful thing. Now, magic is reduced to a thing of charms and children’s rhymes– something used to keep milk from souring and prevent the yarn from knotting. And even that is regarded as an evil by some in the city of New Salem. But for the Eastwood sisters– James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladona– magic has always been a part of their lives. Or it was, until they were forced apart seven years ago. But circumstances reunite them in the midst of a suffragist rally, when a forbidden spell lights a spark of rebellion within the three women that could lead to a revolution– if they can learn to work together again as sisters.
“What my mother taught me was this: you hide the most important things in the places that matter least. Women’s clothes, children’s toys, songs… Places a man would never look.”
Fairy tale retellings have become a mainstay of modern fantasy. Authors present to us feminist versions of Sleeping Beauty or post-modern Cinderella or Snow White from the evil step-mother’s point of view. But few of these retellings ask why fairy tales, children’s rhymes, or folk songs are so enduring and get passed on from one generation to the next. In her second novel, Hugo Award-winning author Alix E. Harrow asks just that: what is hidden in old rhymes and stories? That is not, however, the only thing The Once and Future Witches deals with. Harrow weaves in narratives of sisterhood (whether the women are blood relatives or not), what it means to be a woman, the power of names, motherhood, and the power of oft-denigrated ‘women’s work’ (sewing, embroidery, child care, and other tasks that mostly women do, that society denigrates because women primarily do them). It’s a tall order for a book, but Harrow handles it with ease, in part because her main characters, the Eastwood sisters, are so different from each other. They may be sisters, but they are not carbon-copies. They have their own wants, their own strengths, and their own reasons for doing what they do. One wants to be loved entirely– not just for certain parts of herself. One wants to love without feeling ashamed of who she loves. One wants to understand why she wasn’t loved in the first place.
The power of sisterhood is another strength of The Once and Future Witches. Fairy tales often feature sisters or step-sisters, but they’re often wicked or evil sisters who want to prevent the innocent heroine from marrying the prince or achieving whatever other goal she has. And even modern tales that claim to be feminist often portray sisters as tearing each other down over a man or an ideal. While the Eastwood sisters have their differences and their own traumas to work through, they’re not at odds with each other to the point that they are willing to sabotage their sisters’ workings. Their relationships aren’t perfect, and they aren’t perfect, but when push comes to shove they will stand together against the villains seeking to crush women and women’s power underfoot.
Speaking of the villain. It’s obvious early on who the villain is and what they’re capable of. Whether this is a flaw is up to the reader, but fairy tale villains have never been subtle. Their subtlety or lack thereof isn’t the point. The fairy tale villain is the story’s counterweight, the being or force the heroine strives against in order to find the inner strength that will allow her to become who she is meant to be. For the Eastwood sisters to find their strength and courage– after women have been beaten down and stripped of power for centuries– it takes a powerful villain indeed to balance out their potential.
As with Harrow’s debut, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, The Once and Future Witches builds a lyrical world where truth and power are written to the stories– and sometimes the plain fabric– of the world around us. It just takes a willingess to open one’s eyes to the notion that amazing things can be found in the everyday. For those willing to take up their courage in both hands and fight for what they know to be right, the struggle might be painful and the sacrifices might be great, but in the end the promise of a better world is worth the price.
Thank you to NetGalley and Redhook Books for providing me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion.