The Once and Future Witches, by Alix E. Harrow
In 2019, Alix E. Harrow released her debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, which was promptly nominated for many awards (winning its fair share of them) and placed on numerous “best of” lists. I read it, and enjoyed it, but it got somewhat cumbersome for me towards the end so I never really went out and crowed about it – but I didn’t dampen those who did.
Now she’s come out with a second novel, about three sisters who are witches in the late 1800s – and not only do I want to crow about this one, I want to shout from the rooftops that this is one magnificent read.
Granted, you have to enjoy the sub-genre to truly appreciate the book – near historical fantasy – it’s not like this book is going to change the world. But it is going to make escaping the world quite enjoyable.
The book follows the Eastwood sister: Beatrice, the eldest, the smart, solid, grounded one. Agnes, the beautiful and strong middle sister. And Juniper, the wild, fierce, untamed youngest sister. They lived with their abusive father (their mother having died giving birth to Juniper), and were sometimes cared for by their grandmother, Mama Mags, who lived in a cottage nearby, and knew the words and rhymes to find things and fix things and soothe things. But when Juniper is small, Bella (as Beatrice is known) departs, and then Agnes, leaving Junie alone with her father for seven years. Each departure is couched in betrayal and broken promises and leaves the sisters estranged from each other.
It is in a bleak New Salem (built next to the ashes of Old Salem, after the Last Three Sisters were burned for witchcraft and the Way to Avalon was lost) that Juniper flees after the death of her father, not realizing that her sisters also have settled there – although neither one knows about the other. The book follows their individual stories, but also their reunification, and their efforts to make the world a better place for women by using folk tales and nursery rhymes and small “women’s magics” that so many know through whispers and songs and notes written in the back of books.
But this book is not merely about witchcraft. It’s about finding what you’ve lost, and the price you have to pay for getting it back. It’s about bonds, between sisters, between women, between those who fight to get through the day, between those who are powerless but dream of more. It’s about trust, and betrayal, and anger. It’s about hope. It’s about love, couched in language that is visceral and lush.
It’s a wonderful book, and one I plan on giving to someone I love who just happens to be a budding witch. I think she’ll like it.
I think you will, too.
— Sharon Browning