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

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

‘In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the three Eastwood sisters join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote – and perhaps not even to live – the sisters must delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.’

I adored The Ten Thousand Doors of January, particularly because Harrow has such a brilliant understanding of the cadence of language and the rhythm of words, and how to use them to devastating effect, and so I should have known that The Once and Future Witches was not going to be a book that I could ‘just read a couple of chapters’ of and put down. I read through at least two thirds of the novel in one go, and it’s one of those reads that surfacing from involves the return to reality being incredibly jarring.

When the reader meets the Eastwood sisters, they are not exactly on the best of terms and habour resentments towards each other and the connection between them that they cannot ignore. What becomes apparent very quickly is that much of this ill-feeling is born of guilt and, over the course of the novel, it becomes clearer and clearer that what they blame themselves for are not things that were truly within their power. That they have all fled their home for various reasons only emphasises the claustrophobic nature of an upbringing in a society that attempted to stifle them in almost every way, men intent on punishing any suggestion that a girl should be anything but an obedient and silent wife and mother. In finding themselves and each other, the sisters slowly return to their old understanding that it is only together that they are going to survive and bring back what has been all but lost.

The magic in The Once and Future Witches isn’t of your typical ‘fantasy’ variety, where there are no limits to a power that can do anything at all. It’s grounded in the reality of its setting and in literature; in the way words are crafted and handed down through generations. It doesn’t suggest that this power to heal and help and protect is exclusive to a specific bloodline or excludes anyone. It’s a magic that can belong to everyone and fights against the stereotypical images and ideas about witches that were born in ancient history, when sorceresses were no longer celebrated and started to be depicted as dangerous, unpredictable and ugly simply because men could not tolerate the idea of powerful (’emotional and reckless’) women. It laments what we lose to history by force, spells and ideas hidden in common rhymes and literature now assumed to be ‘just’ stories. As the story unfolds, the characters reclaim what has been lost to them; what they’ve been forced to hide and what has been taken and all but destroyed, and in taking back one kind of power also get to reclaim parts of themselves that they’ve felt they have to suppress and conceal.

I loved the suggestion that women’s clothing no longer has half the number of pockets as men’s because it would be dangerous to let women have pockets in which they could keep bits and pieces to cast spells, and thus keep any attempts at wielding power out in the open and easily preventable. It’s an idea that feels a little too real and not out of the realms of fantasy, because, at this point in history, what ideas and methods have not been used (or aren’t being used) to keep women from having power, even over their own bodies? It feels like so small a thing to have changed, yet so believable that it could have such a huge impact. What woman hasn’t lamented the absence of pockets? Is there a more believable reason not ostensibly related to fashion for why our clothes hardly ever have functional pockets? I honestly haven’t been able to not think about this every time I realise the dress I’ve worn to work inevitably doesn’t even have a pocket for my keys/lanyard/ID.

The Once and Future Witches is out October 13th, from Orbit Books, who very kindly sent me a proof for review (thank you!). This is one of my favourite books of the year so far: a fantasy story that isn’t entirely a fantasy; a historical novel that screams so much of what is still wrong with modern society; a reminder of the importance of our histories and what we may have unwittingly forgotten.