*Thank you to Orbit for sending me this book, in exchange for an honest review!
Alix E.Harrow’s latest novel, The Once and Future Witches, is – to put it simply – utterly spellbinding. Following the stories of three sisters, Bella, Agnes, and James Juniper Eastwood, Harrow ties in witching and the sister’s attempts to reclaim their magic, almost seamlessly with the US women’s suffrage movement of the late 1800s.
It is a book of magic and feminism. The struggles of witches are tangled up with the struggles of women; each aspiring to gain agency and power but conflicted and oftimes separated as to how (as noted in a poignantly powerful scene near the novel’s start). I adored how Harrow mingled the idea of witches – typically identified as “other” and outside the realms of ‘civilised’ society – and aligned it with the women’s rights movement.
Through the eyes of her three main protagonists, Harrow gives her readers a highly nuanced, enthralling exploration of what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal society, and the distinctions between the women themselves (there’s POC representation in this discussion on women’s suffrage – an often missed but sorely needed inclusion in more books). There are the usual obstacles for them to overcome: classism, sexism, ignorance, fear, but Harrow cleverly adds another, more supernatural and darker, twist which becomes horrifyingly evident in a gut-wrenching twist the further you read.
“If a woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box”
Each of the three women are so starkly different to the other, filling the ‘maiden, mother, crone’ archetype, each with their own worries and doubts brought up to the surface in a way that makes them wonderfully real. Bella is the academic, hungry for lost knowledge, Agnes is the core, beating heart with strength and sense, whilst Juniper is the wild-child, the feral hothead ready to change the world with nothing but a few spells and determination.
The book is bursting with gorgeous prose, and wonderful character development. As someone with two sisters, I really enjoyed seeing this kind of platonic relationship as the main core of this novel. You watch as Bella, Agnes, and Juniper’s relationship – fractious at the start – merges closer as their quest to find the Lost Ways of Avalon (the source of long-forgotten witching power) gets increasingly more perilous against those who would try to stop them.
As a final note, I really enjoy books that interlink lore with the narrative, and this is a book that hits the nail on the head. There are spells, and fairy stories, and rhymes that make up the backbone of the “magic”, littered throughout the story, which really adds to the magic that drips off the page.
With October ‘spooky season’ fully at our doorsteps, this new novel is one you won’t want to miss when it’s released on 13th October. A bewitching book, The Once and Future Witches is poignant and gripping in equal measure, with a powerful exploration of feminism rooted firmly at its core. I can’t wait to share this with as many people as possible.