The Once and Future Witches

Alix E. Harrow

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“Witching and women’s rights. Suffrage and spells. They’re both…” She gestures in midair again. “They’re both a kind of power, aren’t they? The kind we aren’t allowed to have…”

There are no such thing as witches, not anymore. Those that came before were burned, and Salem lies in ruins. A new city arose, and New Salem is a place of order and Christianity. A woman’s only hope of power lies within the ballot box, yet this way is blocked.

When three estranged sisters – the youngest wild and impetuous, hiding a terrible secret; the next with a steady spirit and a secret of her own; the oldest wise but nursing deep emotional wounds – come together in New Salem, they must try to work with each other and the suffrage movement for both women and witches alike, because the price of failure will be too awful to bear.

~~~~~

This intricate novel may have been slow to start, but once it got going it was superb. Set in 1893, it considers women’s rights at the time of the suffragist movement, conflating the proscription against witchcraft with the exclusion of women from the ballot box, and also exploring civil rights, feminism, gender identity, family, and attitudes to sexuality. This makes it sound incredibly heavy and boring, but I promise you that it’s anything but.

Enter the three Eastwood sisters – James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna. The first part of the novel concentrates on establishing the personality, history, and nature of each of our disparate protagonists, which is why it takes a little while to get going. There’s a lot of flicking back and forth between the three which is slightly confusing at first, but it passes once you get into the meat of the story. That doesn’t mean the reader can afford to not pay full attention: this is not a book you’ll be able to just pick up for ten minutes in between doing other things – it deserves your full attention, so find somewhere quiet to curl up with a coffee and indulge yourself.

There are so many touches in this novel that I love, from the use of common nursery rhymes in the spells to the comment on why women’s dresses no longer have pockets to the foreshadowing in a description of the sisters’ hair. It may be a work of fiction, but so many of the injustices against women, homosexuals and people of colour happened in history, and Harrow obviously spent a lot of time researching before putting pen to paper (so to speak).  

There’s really not much more I can say without giving away spoilers. Enjoy!

I received a free reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Publication date: already published

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