The Once and Future Witches

by Alix E. Harrow

Cover image

Publisher: Redhook Books
Copyright: October 2020
ISBN: 0-316-42202-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 515

Buy at Powell's Books

Once upon a time there were three sisters.

They were born in a forgotten kingdom that smelled of honeysuckle and mud, where the Big Sandy ran wide and the sycamores shone white as knuckle-bones on the banks. The sisters had no mother and a no-good father, but they had each other; it might have been enough.

But the sisters were banished from their kingdom, broken and scattered.

The Once and Future Witches opens with Juniper, the youngest, arriving in the city of New Salem. The year is 1893, but not in our world, not quite; Juniper has witch-ways in her pocket and a few words of power. That's lucky for her because the wanted posters arrived before she did.

Unbeknownst to her or to each other, her sisters, Agnes and Bella, are already in New Salem. Agnes works in a cotton mill after having her heart broken one too many times; the mill is safer because you can't love a cotton mill. Bella is a junior librarian, meek and nervous and uncertain but still fascinated by witch-tales and magic. It's Bella who casts the spell, partly by accident, partly out of wild hope, but it was Juniper arriving in the city who provided the final component that made it almost work. Not quite, not completely, but briefly the lost tower of Avalon appears in St. George's Square. And, more importantly, the three sisters are reunited.

The world of the Eastwood sisters has magic, but the people in charge of that world aren't happy about it. Magic is a female thing, contrary to science and, more importantly, God. History has followed a similar course to our world in part because magic has been ruthlessly suppressed. Inquisitors are a recent memory and the cemetery has a witch-yard, where witches are buried unnamed and their ashes sown with salt. The city of New Salem is called New Salem because Old Salem, that stronghold of witchcraft, was burned to the ground and left abandoned, fit only for tourists to gawk at the supposedly haunted ruins. The women's suffrage movement is very careful to separate itself from any hint of witchcraft or scandal, making its appeals solely within the acceptable bounds of the church.

Juniper is the one who starts to up-end all of that in New Salem. Juniper was never good at doing what she was told.

This is an angry book that feels like something out of another era, closer in tone to a Sheri S. Tepper or Joanna Russ novel than the way feminism is handled in recent work. Some of that is the era of the setting, before women even had the right to vote. But primarily it's because Harrow, like those earlier works, is entirely uninterested in making excuses or apologies for male behavior. She takes an already-heated societal conflict and gives the underdogs magic, which turns it into a war. There is likely a better direct analogy from the suffrage movement, but the comparison that came to my mind was if Martin Luther King, Jr. proved ineffective or had not existed, and instead Malcolm X or the Black Panthers became the face of the Civil Rights movement.

It's also an emotionally exhausting book. The protagonists are hurt and lost and shattered. Their moments of victory are viciously destroyed. There is torture and a lot of despair. It works thematically; all the external solutions and mythical saviors fail, but in the process the sisters build their own strength and their own community and rescue themselves. But it's hard reading at times if you're emotionally invested in the characters (and I was very invested). Harrow does try to balance the losses with triumphs and that becomes more effective and easier to read in the back half of the book, but I struggled with the grimness at the start.

One particular problem for me was that the sisters start the book suspicious and distrustful of each other because of lies and misunderstandings. This is obvious to the reader, but they don't work through it until halfway through the book. I can't argue with this as a piece of characterization — it made sense to me that they would have reacted to their past the way that they did. But it was still immensely frustrating to read, since in the meantime awful things were happening and I wanted them to band together to fight. They also worry over the moral implications of the fate of their father, whereas I thought the only problem was that the man couldn't die more than once. There too, it makes sense given the moral framework the sisters were coerced into, but it is not my moral framework and it was infuriating to see them stay trapped in it for so long.

The other thing that I found troubling thematically is that Harrow personalizes evil. I thought the more interesting moral challenge posed in this book is a society that systematically abuses women and suppresses their power, but Harrow gradually supplants that systemic conflict with a villain who has an identity and a backstory. It provides a more straightforward and satisfying climax, and she does avoid the trap of letting triumph over one character solve all the broader social problems, but it still felt too easy. Worse, the motives of the villain turn out to be at right angles to the structure of the social oppression. It's just a tool he's using, and while that's also believable, it means the transfer of the narrative conflict from the societal to the personal feels like a shying away from a sharper political point. Harrow lets the inhabitants of New Salem off too easily by giving them the excuse of being manipulated by an evil mastermind.

What I thought Harrow did handle well was race, and it feels rare to be able to say this about a book written by and about white women. There are black women in New Salem as well, and they have their own ways and their own fight. They are suspicious of the Eastwood sisters because they're worried white women will stir up trouble and then run away and leave the consequences to fall on black women... and they're right. An alliance only forms once the white women show willingness to stay for the hard parts. Black women are essential to the eventual success of the protagonists, but the opposite is not necessarily true; they have their own networks, power, and protections, and would have survived no matter what the Eastwoods did. The book is the Eastwoods' story, so it's mostly concerned with white society, but I thought Harrow avoided both making black women too magical or making white women too central. They instead operate in parallel worlds that can form the occasional alliance of mutual understanding.

It helps that Cleopatra Quinn is one of the best characters of the book.

This was hard, emotional reading. It's the sort of book where everything has a price, even the ending. But I'm very glad I read it. Each of the three sisters gets their own, very different character arc, and all three of those arcs are wonderful. Even Agnes, who was the hardest character for me to like at the start of the book and who I think has the trickiest story to tell, becomes so much stronger and more vivid by the end of the book. Sometimes the descriptions are trying a bit too hard and sometimes the writing is not quite up to the intended goal, but some of the descriptions are beautiful and memorable, and Harrow's way of weaving the mythic and the personal together worked for me.

This is a more ambitious book than The Ten Thousand Doors of January, and while I think the ambition exceeded Harrow's grasp in a few places and she took a few thematic short-cuts, most of it works. The characters felt like living and changing people, which is not easy given how heavily the story structure leans on maiden, mother, and crone archetypes. It's an uncompromising and furious book that turns the anger of 1970s feminist SF onto themes that are very relevant in 2021. You will have to brace yourself for heartbreak and loss, but I think it's fantasy worth reading. Recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-01-03

Last modified and spun 2021-01-04