Once upon a time, Alix Harrow wrote about three sisters. Also, suffragists, witching, folklore, flawed alliances, an alternate America, and women's work. She gave this second novel many gifts: charm, grace, and gorgeousness; feral wonder, clear vision, an ardent heart. She gave it history, awareness of injustice and will to survive it. And so it went into the world to seek its fortune, inviting readers to settle in; to sigh with the pleasure of finding a not too this, not too that, just right story.
If spells ("witch-ways" in the novel) are truly hidden in stories, then I know what spell is in The Once and Future Witches. It's the spell to claim a heart and dwell there, ever after. I unabashedly, unreservedly adore The Once and Future Witches. I adore it with the kind of passion that prickles at my eyes and wavers my voice. I adore it in a way that requires purchase of a giving copy, for friends in need.
Friends, let me tell you about this book.
Witches were powerful, once. Now, witching is illegal. At a suffragist rally in New Salem, 1893, Beatrice Belladonna Eastwood unwittingly performs a partial spell which reveals a magical tower in the sky — and brings together estranged sisters. Beatrice is the eldest, a librarian, folklorist, and lesbian; then there's Agnes Amaranth, stoic, pregnant, a street-savvy factory girl; finally, James Juniper, youngest, wildest, a country-girl and murderess. Their shared history is a tangle of hurt and betrayal, but they loved each other, once. The New Salem Women's Association kicks Juniper out when she agitates for witching rights alongside the vote, so she starts The Sisters of Avalon; a new movement, bold, aggressive, open to all women. Agnes recruits others, while Beatrice works on a shared grimoire. Her goal — the ultimate goal of The Sisters of Avalon — is to find the rest of the tower-spell and reclaim magic believed lost. Meanwhile, plague and panic are on the rise. Fringe-party politician Gideon Hill blames witchcraft. People are listening, and there's something wrong with the shadows of New Salem ...
Harrow likes a secret society in the best way, and Witches is riddled with secrets, honeycombed with groups working toward overlapping or opposing goals. The Sisters engage in imaginative skulduggery, scrounging plans from overlooked skills and ignored know-how. She also likes an uprising, and here, where witchery and sickness both run deep as water under a layer of oil, that's heady stuff. We all (I hope) agree women getting the vote was long overdue. Framing the reclamation of magic and power against that real-world struggle, which we know turned out a certain way, feels particularly apt to themes of once and future, poignant to the powerlessness many feel this year.
I adored watching characters as their expectations were subverted, as their understanding of their world expanded. Harrow revels in many-layered mysteries, in a story of many acts, in wordplay. Characters respond so organically to surprise that it is a wonder to read. They feel like people I know; they feel like my friends. Even minor characters are replete with full sets of motivations, fears, longings. They never fall in line for convenience's sake. In my review of her previous book, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, my only criticism was plot sometimes fell together too neatly or people in love too quickly. Here these (minor) flaws are nowhere to be found; my only wish is more Cleopatra Quinn, more New Cairo. Harrow doesn't shy away from showing us racism in the women's movement, but I'd love to read a book which delves deeper into the Black or Indigenous experience of women in this world.
So much of The Once and Future Witches is about what could happen when women talk to each other, sharing knowledge, building community. Harrow knows community is power; that it can be found and built. Forging connections takes work and it's often as challenging to accept support as it is to give it. The Once and Future Witches has much to say about isolation and the shapes a society takes when it is scornful of parts of itself. It also explores what is owed family, the past and future.
Folklorists, you'll want to take this book with you to your grave-barrow, chanting Charlotte Perault, Andrea Lang, Sisters Grimm. Others, you'll be fascinated by this alternate America; by the vibrant characters, the twisty plot; by the atmospheric beauty of the writing, which is very much Harrow's own thing, but also echoes Naomi Novik, Alice Hoffman, Joanne Harris, Leigh Bardugo. Friends, don't you wish you'd already read this book? I'll start you off:
"Once upon a time, there were three sisters."
Jessica P. Wick is a writer, freelance editor, and California native currently living in Rhode Island.