The Once and Future Witches
by Alix E. Harrow
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted September 18, 2020
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Once upon a time, there were three sisters.
I was again fortunate in receiving an advance e-book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. Alix E. Harrow's second novel, The Once and Future Witches, will be published next month, October 13. It proves her debut book, the multi-award-finalist The Ten Thousand Doors of January, was no fluke. I wouldn't dare rate one over the other, and highly recommened both. Exquisitely plotted, with great characters, high stakes, and high rewards at the end, but not without risks, losses, and heartache along the way.
It is set in an alternate world in which at least some of those convicted and executed during the Salem trials were true witches, and the town was burned to the ground. Two hundred years later, in New Salem, three women find each other again. They are the Eastwood sisters: Beatrice Belladonna, Agnes Amaranth, and James Juniper. The middle names came from their mother, the first from their father, and it's clear he was hoping his third child would be a boy. He was fond of drink, a volatile and abusive man, to his wife and daughters. Their mother died shortly after Juniper was born, and the two older sisters ran away from home seven years prior to the main part of the action, when Juniper was only ten. Juniper remained on their farm until her father's death, then left since the land was bequeathed to a male cousin. And for other reasons. Beatrice, who later prefers to be known as Bella, is a librarian at Salem College; Agnes works in a textile mill, not knowing her sister lives in the same town. Beatrice had been researching fairy tales and folklore, and on the evening of the spring equinox in 1893, she recites a verse found in an old book. She, Agnes, and Juniper, are drawn together toward St. George Square, where they witness the appearance of an old tower in the mists, one which has a symbol of three circles, possibly intertwined snakes, imprinted on its door. They later learn that symbol represents the Last Three Witches of Avalon, thought to have been dead for hundreds of years. The sisters' reunion is fraught with tension, since each had been harboring resentments due to thinking the others had betrayed them. Learning to work together again would prove just as hard as learning the magic they needed to survive.
Another difference between our world and this fantasy, many of the stories Beatrice had been reading are by the Sister's Grimm, Jacobine and Willa rather than Jacob and Wilhelm. Also, her copy of Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals is by Charlotte (rather than Charles) Perrault. It is possible the Grimm sisters and Perrault were unaware that many of their stories contained witching spells, that those tales had been handed down for centuries from grandmother to mother to daughter, so that the magic words would not be forgotten, hidden until needed. Each chapter begins with an epigram, many familiar rhymes, but with a few changes. Since I've never read the original Grimm or Perrault, I don't know if those sayings come from them, or are alterations of the original unique to this book. The Last Three were said to be a Crone, a Mother, and a Maiden, which of course nearly all women are at various times in their life, if they lived long enough that is. The Eastwood's are mistaken in thinking they are special, destined to be the New Three, although they do become that. When they finally find their way to the Last Three, they are told they just happened to be in the right place at the right time and knew the right words; "That's all magic is, really. The space between what you have and what you need."
In addition to all the magic, this is also a political story. Many people acknowledged that minor bits of magic were natural for women, to aid them in their housework, factory jobs, or farming. Anything beyond that might give women a notion of rising above their station. What then when magic is mixed with the suffragist movement, and later with the labor movement, when it is learned that some men know their own form of magic? Agnes encounters a man who is laying low in New Salem following his activities in Chicago that preceded the Pullman Strike. He was a member of the American Railway Union under Eugene Debs, and they had used spells to hinder train movements. I'm not sure if the author intended the parallel, but I read into it a comparison to today's political landscape. Republicans declare themselves to be the moral choice while displaying distinctly unmoral behavior, and project upon the opposition deplorable actions they are guilty of themselves. In New Salem, a city council member, and eventually new mayor, declares himself to be bringing the city out of the darkness and into the light. He has aligned with the Women's Christian Union to fight against the suffragists, and also against the witches when they reveal themselves. He's the villain of course, a practioner of a darker magic. Juniper is obviously the Maiden in the new triumverate, Agnes is the Mother. Bella knew Agnes had been pregnant before, but chose to end it with the help of their grandmother, Mother Mags. This time she has decided to keep the baby, but not the father. Bella is the Crone, even though she is not that old. She had resolved to be an old spinster, never desiring a husband. Ah, but a lover, that is different. Many in "dignified" society would have a hard time deciding which crime was more serious, Bella's witchcraft or her relationship with another woman, and horror of horrors, Cleopatra Quinn is Black.
As with her previous book, Harrow tells what I believe will be a stand-alone novel. Not that there isn't more story to tell, but we learn enough about each character to be able to visualize their later experiences. We get a bit of that in the final chapters, as Bella and Cleo endeavor to research and archive as many spells and incantations as they can find, in order to rebuild the library of the Last Three which had burned. Agnes is in Chicago, both to be close to her lover, August Lee, and help in his union activities, but also to organize women in the factories. Juniper's destiny lies in another direction, helping other girls who find their way to the tower, but also contemplating a much grander adventure. The only thing I'm unsure of, as is Juniper, is how long that adventure will last. It was stated that any one woman could be the manifestation of all three aspects of witchcraft, but in the Eastwood's case, the strengths of each individual made the Three even stronger than before. All they have to do is continue to support and trust each other. I choose to believe they do.
Once upon a time, there were three witches.
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