The Once & Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow – Book Review & Buddy Read

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 Eastwood sisters–James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna–join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and 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 will need to 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.

Time for another buddy review & another new to Susan author! I adored Harrow’s Ten Thousand Doors of January when I read it last year, so when Susan asked me to be her book reading buddy for this one I couldn’t say no. As usual, and thanks to those pesky time zones, Susan’s review will be posted later than mine but I will link to it here once it’s live.

Review!

Every story starts the same and this one is no different. Once upon a time, there were three sisters. Witchcraft is illegal but anyone can do it, as long as they have the Will, the Way and the Words. Juniper is on the run for murder when she finds herself in New Salem looking up at a tower that shouldn’t exist. She thinks it’s a sign, a sign that witching should come back and June is willing to stand up to anyone who disagrees. Juniper has the Will. Agnes is leading a pretty solitary life. The circle around her heart used to include her two sisters, but now she doesn’t let anyone in. That is until a tower appears and she reunites with her sister’s, she finds her circle becoming bigger and bigger until the sisters that fill it aren’t solely from blood. Agnes has the Way. Beatrice is quite content working in the Library in New Salem, spending her time hidden between the books. Until she finds words hidden in a children’s book, words that call to her, words that make a tower appear and at the same time bring her sisters back into her life. Beatrice believes that the words are part of a spell to bring back the lost tower of Avalon, and with that the ability to create true witches once again. Beatrice has the Words. Unfortunately, there are forces working against the sister, forces far older and sinister than they can imagine. It will take sister working with sister, both blood related and those found through circumstance, if they are to bring to light the true evil of New Salem before history repeats itself and the Maiden, Mother and Crone burn for their sins.

The Once and Future Witches is another book that is almost prophetic in how much it is needed, and still relevant in today’s society. Harrow seamlessly adds witchcraft to the tales of suffrage and torment that women lived through and gave them a new way to fight back. By taking the spells from well known fairy tales and nursery rhymes Harrow manages to make a book that could easily read as historical fiction rather than Fantasy. It isn’t hard when reading Once and Future Witches to believe that witchcraft does exist, that it has simply been forgotten through time and circumstance. And this right here? This is something rare. I have read plenty of books that use historical time periods and include magic, but non that give me the sense that what I’m reading is the actual truth of it, that something has been hidden from me. That I have the Words, and all I need is the Will and the Way.

As the eldest of 3 sisters I couldn’t help but find myself resonating with the characters, discovering little parts of myself & my sisters in their actions and behaviours: Junipers bullheadedness and temper, Agnes strength and self isolation and Beatrice’s affinity for books & reserved nature. Harrow writes what true sisterhood is like. She doesn’t shy away from the pettiness, the arguments, the fact that you can love someone with your whole heart and hate them at the same time. But she also shows that no matter the depth’s of betrayal, no matter the distance, physically or emotionally between you, Sisterhood is for life, all for one and one for all, and when it comes down to it, they would sacrifice themselves for the happiness and safety of another.

This is definitely a character driven story, and for that reason we get a lot of set up in the first part of the book. We find out why the sisters went their separate ways and why they are where they are now. I know some people have found it to be slow starting but as someone who is a strong advocate for well developed characters Harrow knocks it out of the park. I defy you not to fall in love with the Eastwood sisters, to find little bits of yourself in them. The set up of the characters and the depth that Harrow goes into their inner thoughts makes the ending that much more emotional. I will admit to ugly crying through most, ok all, of the last part of the book because I knew what was going to happen. I knew the characters on such an intimate level that I was able to guess their actions, even if I desperately wished I would be wrong. And it’s not just the Eastwood sisters, Harrow does an amazing job at making every single character in this book fly off the pages. Some may get a line, some may get a page but you can’t help but feel drawn to every single one, which is another reason that the ending of this book was so spectacular.

Romance wise this book has it all, a brilliant and strong f/f romance, a sister who is not interested in love at all and another who has a young man vying for a heart that she vowed to close off. None of these are major arc’s in the book, but they all play their part in the character’s growth. The Eastwood sisters story’s simply wouldn’t be the same without them.

The Once and Future Witches is without a doubt a warning, a warning of just what can happen when women work together. Of how they can change the world. Of how they can prevail over simple mindedness. It shows the strength in sisterhood both biological and situational. The Eastwood sisters may have been powerful, but they would never have survived without the help of the other women surrounding them. Men fret not, this isn’t a ‘all men suck’ book, in fact there are two male characters who were strong advocates and risk their lives on more than one occasion to help the sisters.

Harrow’s prose won me over in The Ten Thousand Doors of January and The Once and Future Witches has cemented her as one of my all time favourite authors. This isn’t a book you can fly through, it took me over a week to finish because I wanted to savour every last word. I know for a fact this is going to make my favourite reads of the month, as well as the year, and I’m going to have a hard time not just copy and pasting the whole book into my favourite quotes section. Feminist fantasy at it’s best, I can’t recommend this book more except to say it stole my heart and left me with one hell of a book hangover.

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