Well, this is a bit awkward. It seems we have had two “witches/women using magic in historical women’s movements” books this year, and one is far superior to the other. While there is enough room in the genre for any number of magic based women’s movements, The Once And Future Witches by Alix Harrow is our favorite for a variety of reasons I will go into. Additionally, I have a confession to make. Witches is Alix’s second book and she is coming in hot off of last years’ debut The Ten Thousand Doors of January… which I very much did not like. It just wasn’t my cup of tea and it has been super awkward to have any number of readers mention that I should check it out only to have to respond, “Ah, well, I did, and not for me thank you.” Normally I wouldn’t mention this, but it seems relevant in this situation to point out that I wasn’t a fan of January and I very much am a fan of this book.
Witches tells the story of three sisters: James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna. Each of them represents a different female archetype in fiction (the maiden, the mother, and the crone) and each of them finds themselves drawn to the city of New Salem by extraordinary circumstances. The city is undergoing a moment of upheaval. Women are marching to gain rights, witches seem to be making a comeback, and things are starting to get a bit chaotic. The three sisters were raised in a broken home and had an enormous falling out when they were younger, but time heals all wounds and magic has tied them together so they might as well try to get along. The story follows the trio as they attempt to find the lost ways of Avalon, a repository of magic left by the great witches of the past, and as they try to use their magic in both subtle and unsubtle ways to further the rights of women. Each of the sisters gives a window into the different struggles of women of the time, and now, and helps categories the struggles of the feminine half for readers of any persuasion.
This book has a slow start. When I initially began Witches I began to worry that I was in for a repeat experience. I didn’t connect much with the characters, the protagonists felt little more than the tropes they aimed to represent, and the prose was overwhelming. Harrow, for better or worse, is an extremely dramatic writer. Actions like opening windows are described as a flowery herculean task with a paragraph of text. But, as I stuck with the book a number of great things began to happen. Harrow’s prose, which bothered me when describing the little things in life, started being focused on the trials and tribulations of women. While her dramatic writing feels over the top when discussing mundane tasks, when describing things like powerful and emotional humanizing movements it is frankly amazing. Harrow manages to breathe so much passion and wonder into the actions of these characters and the book rapidly begins to rapidly feel less like a character story and more like a fairy tale about changing the world. It leads to some very powerful scenes and a lasting impact that stuck with me long after I closed the final pages.
While the protagonists of the story start out as feeling a little shallow, they absolutely do not remain that way. Around a quarter into the book, they start gaining depth rapidly and the trio that I ended with was unrecognizable from the sisters with which I began. I fell in love with these women and their stories. Their struggles became heartwrenching to experience and I found myself desperately rooting for them.
The formatting of the book is also a lot of fun, with each chapter starting with a rhyme/incantation for a spell that describes the nature of the chapter. There are also interlude chapters that are retellings of classic fairytales that are relevant to the story. In general, the production value of the book is fantastic and the physical book is a wonderful object to hold in your hands.
My criticisms of Witches are few. As I mentioned, I think the start of the book is a little slow and the pacing could be a bit uneven at times. There were parts of the book I couldn’t put down and other chapters I had to force myself to get through. While I think there are a number of very powerful emotional climaxes scattered throughout the entirety of the book, I actually found the finale a bit weaker than many of the earlier crescendos. But, ultimately these complaints did little to quench my enthusiasm for the book.
The Once And Future Witches is a beautiful and powerful story that uses Alix Harrow’s strengths as a writer to put a lot of punch into a touching tale about witches and women’s suffrage. The characters are wonderful, the fairytales are fresh and fun, and the magic leaps off the page. While it didn’t quite make our top 20 of 2020, it was pretty damn close and is certainly worth your time.
Rating: The Once And Future Witches – 8.0/10