The Once and Future Witches

Alix E. Harrow
The Once and Future Witches Cover

The Once and Future Witches


Wow! What a brilliant book this is! I've had the pleasure of reading a lot of good books this year of which many have surprised me, but this has gone to the top of my 'favourite reads in 2022 list' (if I actually had a list!). Sometimes books just grab hold of you and demand you stay with them, they take a hold in your mind and your heart and the characters stay with you long after you've finished the book. I have a feeling I will remember this book with fondness for sometime to come.

The funny thing is, I struggled with the first few chapters to engage with the book. I don't know what it was, maybe it was tiredness, maybe it was not clicking with the setting straight away but it just grabbing me. What kept me where the most beautiful sentences and writing that infuse the book, phrases that are so emotive, evocative, that they promised much to come. I could tell Alix E. Harrow is a good writer, whose prose demands to be savoured and enjoyed and when I was hooked there was a rather wonderful story here.

I shall avoid spoilers in this review, but I must advise the reader that any discussion of the themes of the book invariably points towards key plot points in the book (I will try and be spoiler free but it's kind of impossible to talk about the characters without revealing things which happen).

That out of the way, 'The Once and Future Witches' is set in 'New Salem' in the late 19th century in America with three sisters, estranged due to family trauma and distrust are brought together as part of a confluence of a magical event. What follows is an engaging, enthralling, nay spellbinding novel that brings the three sisters together in their fight against the city's mayor and the powerful men of the city's brutalisation of the working person, and women in particular. There is so much in this book it will be hard in this review for me to capture everything that I found engaging and thought provoking.

One cannot help but read this book in the context of America's modern history and the role of the Church and the right in it's suppression of knowledge and critical thinking - it wasn't that long ago that the debate was between Creationism and Evolution, now it is Critical Race Theory that is suppressed and the suppression of any discussion about LGBTQIA themes and identity. It's even the way children are taught to read. It's the denial of knowledge about healthcare and women's right to choose. In Education and society in general there is a white male patriotic patriarchal group, traditionally rooted in Christian religions and an unswerving belief in Capitalism that present a unified version of the truth that cannot be wavered from in either a rational, emotional or a creative manner.

So, one thinks this book is about witchcraft - yes it is, but it is also about modern medicine and the way patriarchy punished women and their knowledge about childcare and sexual health and midwifery. It's about witchcraft, but it's also about the Suffragist movement and the civil rights movement and the impact of Whiteness stealing indigenous people's knowledge. It's queer and trans positive with beautiful characters with compelling stories where their sexual identity is part of a rounded whole character (as opposed to just dropping in a character is gay or making who they are romantically attracted to the only important thing about them). The novel catches you out, it's women centred and focussed and yet it is inclusive of men (particularly those who are allies). It's a novel about working class people in their workplace struggles, it's a novel of solidarity and comradeship. It ticks so many boxes one could think it's a mess, but it really isn't - it's intersectional in many ways and it raises many questions that people of colour are only too aware of for instance (there is a scene where white witches call on the support of black and indigenous witches and there is reflection that, 'you want our help but it is always worse for us') and the risk which people carry when they stand up (a personal bugbear when activists from middle class backgrounds advocate for arrest when working class and people of colour know only too well the risks of activism are greater for them).

The story isn't a particularly new one, with the characters standing against an 'evil town mayor' and conservatism but it just wouldn't let go. The three sisters are indeed budding witches, growing in strength throughout the novel as they learn more. There is a wonderful concept of magic in the book that what one needs for a spell are 'the words, the ways and the will' with spells passed on by verbal tradition, hidden in stories or otherwise obscured waiting for discovery by the curious and the knowledgeable. It was absolutely DELICIOUS how Harrow weaves fairy tales, folk tales and nursery rhymes into a compelling and consistent magical world. Grimoires formed from stories we all know, magic coming from words that are familiar just bubbling under the surface. I loved how every chapter starts with the words of a spell that links into a theme of the chapter.

Whilst there is a weaving of witchcraft, paganism and fairy tales, in my limited knowledge I think the novel is respectful to pagan traditions, particularly the notion of the Goddess and her three aspects of Maiden, Mother and Crone. Each of the three sisters identify with one of these archetypes but what Harrow does really well is effectively turn the card upside down with each three - so for instance one of the sisters Agnes is the Mother, she is fiercely protective of her child, nurturing and caring, and yet she is sensual, attractive and desirable and then the card flips again and she is fierce and an unwavering warrior because the Mother always is when her child is threatened. I loved the aspect of the Maiden, instead of youthful and virginal character we have that but also see a wildness, a danger, a symbol of a woman untamed and liberated.

All the three sisters are superbly crafted. Their family is split apart by childhood and adolescent trauma, with the three distrusting each other over how the family was sundered. This is a novel that unpacks trauma and exposes it raw - one cannot help but be moved by the three women's stories. It is also a novel of reconciliation and healing and coming to terms with a past. It's a story of love and romance that makes my heart tingle just thinking about it. It's a novel of sacrifice and giving up everything for love. I can't say it enough though, it's a novel filled with drama and suspense with a well paced story. There were times when I just punched the air and cheered along with the characters as they gave a big 'fuck you' to patriarchy and systems that oppress others.

I am pretty much a junkie for witches and fairy tales anyway and any book which sticks one up to the bosses is a positive but this is beautifully written - the whole book is a grimoire of sorts, it's exciting but tender and it's ultimately one of hope and a better world, a place where magic exists....