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

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. This did not affect my opinion of the book in any way.

Publisher: Orbit
Published: October 2021
Pages: 513


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.

My Thoughts…

CW: This book contains mentions of violence, death, torture, abuse, misogyny, and discrimination.

I’ve been sitting on this review for a while because I found it so incredibly hard to write something even vaguely coherent about this book. I often find it hard to write reviews for books I loved, and The Once and Future Witches is no exception!

The Eastwood sisters completely captivated me right from the first page. The three of them couldn’t be more different, yet I found myself becoming attached to all three even despite their many, many issues. I loved how beautifully fleshed out all three main characters were and how much each of them struggled to reckon with age-old scars (both spiritual and emotional) to ultimately grow into her full potential – and re-discover the power of sisterhood.

Sisterhood is probably the main theme in this book, although there are many to choose from. Starting from the three blood sisters and their fraught relationship, the story lends itself to a wider reflection on sisterhood as a wider concept, encompassing all women. Feminist themes and reflections abound, as the story is set in an alternate version of the United States in the late 1890s and the fight for women’s votes, and freedom more generally. I liked the fact that there were mentions of inequality between the various women in the diverse cast, particularly due to class, race and sexuality, as well as the fact that some male characters joined the fight.

I particularly enjoyed the author’s depiction of witchcraft in this book. It’s no secret that I love witchy books and books with magic, so it was off to a great start because of that alone, but as I read quite a few, it can be hard for me to find them original. This was not an issue here, as the magic system is quite different from others I have read (at least that I remember reading recently). I liked the fact that magic was based on having the words, the will and the ways, and both the limits and the freedoms that this brought. One thing I absolutely loved was the way in which old stories, nursery rhymes and fairytales were used by women to preserve the memory of these spells when witchcraft was forbidden, and I was very happy to find some of these tales included in the book.

I could probably keep writing about this book for much, much longer than I should, so for now suffice it to say that this is easily one of my favourite reads of the year. For quite a chunky book, it was surprisingly quick to read and its themes and characters still stay with me: the more I think about it, the more I find to reflect on!

Filled with complex characters, an engaging plot, beautiful writing, and fascinating lore, The Once and Future Witches is one of those books I will be recommending to everyone for a really long time, and one I hope to revisit soon.

Rating: 5/5

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