Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

I liked everything about Harrow’s new novel, a story that blends the mythology of Grimm’s fairy tales with historical misogyny. The Eastwood sisters Beatrice, Agnes, and Juniper haven’t seen each other for seven years. The two elder sisters fled the family farm because of their abusive father, and the youngest, Juniper, has been scarred by the abandonment of her older sisters. They meet up in 1893 in New Salem after an act of magic that seems to open a door but also opens up longstanding wounds.

Harrow writes this story in a dreamy, allegorical way that puts a new spin on the maligned witches of old fairy tales. You could compare this novel to Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic in some ways. But at the same time, Harrow doesn’t neglect character development and manages to explore all kinds of issues, including women’s suffrage, feminism, race, LGBTQ relationships, motherhood and family.

Beatrice, Agnes, and Juniper are trying to revive witchcraft so they can take back the power that they and all women have lost. They are seeking the Way of Avalon, a mythology about three elder witches: the Crone, the Mother, and the Maiden. No one is sure if opening that door is possible. Beatrice, the eldest, seeks power in the library, researching the lore of spells and compiling a book of notes. Agnes, the middle sister, is the strong one – but she has a baby to protect. And Juniper is the brave one, the hothead. She’s angry and she’s not going to pretend otherwise.

I love a good sister story, and I really appreciated how this book built the sisters’ relationships. It’s easy to write about sisterhood as easy and uncomplicated, but it’s anything but. Sisters support each other but they also tear each other apart. And when sisters betray each other, those wounds are difficult to repair.

I also liked how this book dealt with issues of anger and violence. The sisters have to deal with their history with their abusive father and they are left wondering why the mother they barely knew didn’t do more to protect them. Each of them struggles with feelings of guilt, and they constantly try to figure out how to accomplish what they need without giving in to despair. If they stuff away their anger as they’re expected to do, they accomplish nothing. But if they give in to anger, they also threaten everything they’re working towards, and the people they love. Fundamentally, this felt like what being a woman is all about.

I appreciated that there were both positive and negative male characters. I dislike books where all the men are abusive. In this book there are recurring (and realistic) themes of abuse and oppression, but there are also men who are supportive and loving.

I also loved the backdrop of the women’s suffrage movement. I’ve read a few books this year about the suffrage movement, which is fitting in year of the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. I’ve learned a lot about suffrage this year, in all of its complexity — the women who led this movement were incredibly brave and dedicated, but could also be racist and elitist. This book touches on many of the same issues.

And finally, there’s the magic, which is fantastic. Harrow weaves her spells from the nursery rhymes and fairy tales we all grew up on, explaining that witches have had to teach their daughters these spells for years and years without letting anyone know what they were. I love stories that retell folklore and mythology, and this is an excellent example. For example, Harrow writes about the power of names – a common them across different mythologies.

Beatrice was the name of her father’s mother, a dried-out onion of a woman who visited once a year for Christmas and only ever gave them turgid novels about the lives of the Saints. A Beatrice couldn’t stand in this wild wood by the light of the not-quite-full moon, working the greatest witching of her century; a Beatrice couldn’t meet Quinn’s eyes in the candlelight, with the wind whipping her hair loose across her face. Perhaps a Belladonna could.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Harrow’s book combines strong characters, history, complicated issues, magic and mythology — and somehow none of these elements were given short shrift. I found this a beautifully written book and I fell in love with all three sisters. Highly recommended.

Note: I received a complimentary advance review copy of this book from NetGalley and publisher Redhook Books. This book publishes October 13, 2020.

2 Comments on “Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

  1. Pingback: My October Reading Wrap-Up – The Book Stop

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