I’ve seen a lot of buzz about this book, which is what led me to it as a choice. I’m certainly glad I picked it up, because there’s a lot to appreciate, especially for my reading tastes. As a reader, I feel I’m a fair mix of simple and complicated. I don’t necessarily care about genre. I’ll read anything, but it can’t be formulaic and it must have compelling characters. I don’t necessarily have to like the characters, but I have to be able to appreciate them. For this reason, I consume general fiction, literary fiction, classics, horror, science fiction, fantasy, YA, and more and I enjoy them as long as they are well done. I have a fascination and appreciation for history, but I greatly enjoy the additional depth that good historical fiction can lend to a historical time period. Knowing factual information is one thing, but seeing and experiencing fear, loss and triumph through the eyes of a well-drawn character etched in time is far superior than a non fiction book to truly understanding the significance of a historical time period and what it means for the growth of humanity. Good fiction allows the reader to live a moment in time. I’m well aware that this is my opinion, so if you disagree I hope you can forgive me for that and move on. 😉
You’re probably wondering why I’m telling you all this and are wanting me to get to the point. Then here it is. I love all these various genres, and when a writer can pull multiple genres together and do it well, I find it endlessly fascinating and utterly entertaining. Once and Future Witches is one of those books. It’s an alternate history fantasy that does truly do service to a real period in human history.
In the year 1893, James Juniper Eastwood fled her home town and trekked alone to New Salem, a town that carries the weight and burden of its predecessor, Salem, following the trials and complete annihilation of countless women at the hands of God-fearing townsfolk many years before. To the residents of New Salem, the evils of witching are a thing of the past. Less simple minded folk see the truth. Witching never died. It weaves its guiding thread across the land intertwined with the stories, songs, and tales that have been passed from mother to daughter for hundreds of years. It’s just been waiting for someone, or several someones, to need it badly enough to call back a power strong enough to bring about a new age for women. James Juniper and her previously estranged sisters, Agnes and Beatrice, will find themselves facing the darkest and most depraved aspects of humanity as they attempt to forge an alliance between the women of the present, women who are fighting for suffrage against their male oppressors, and women of the past, those who still whisper the spells of their grandmothers behind closed doors. With the appropriate amount of courage and a willingness to embrace a common goal, they might have a chance of succeeding.
From page 1, this novel is quite riveting. The prose is beautiful and captivating, but it also doesn’t drone on in a pretentious babble that showcases the author’s way with words. We don’t get bogged down in endless details. There’s just enough but not too much. I think it takes a high degree of skill to reach that kind of writing that effortlessly conveys just exactly what is necessary. Every now and then I stumbled upon a passage I needed to circle back around to appreciate again, like this gem:
“Home is dogwoods blooming like pink-tipped pearls in the deep woods and the sharp smell of spring onions underfoot, the overgrown patch where the old barn burned in the mountainside so green and wet and alive it makes her eyes ache. Home is the place that beats like a second heart behind Juniper’s ribs.”
— Alix E. Harrow
Without giving away too much, upon completion of the novel I realized that passages like this are meant for more than just scene-setting. Everything was important, and everything was necessary. Circles are important in witching, and they are also important in a good narrative. Certain themes would never be left to fade away, and home was one of these themes.
Let’s talk characters for a moment. The three main characters, sisters Juniper, Agnes and Beatrice (Bella), were strong and vibrant characters that were each unique in their own way. None of them were perfect, and each had her moments I found grating or infuriating. However, I believe that’s important to the overall theme of sisterhood. This novel doesn’t just deal with the sisterhood of blood relation, but the sisterhood that permeates our society and connects us all. Wars are not won on the backs of any one person. Any one person will have flaws that will bring the whole operation to its knees. That’s why an army is necessary. The strengths of one override the weaknesses of the other. Where Juniper was fool-hearty and reckless, Beatrice was intelligent and reserved. Where Beatrice was timid and lacking in courage, Agnes was bold and hard-edged. And where Agnes was fickle and lacking in conviction, Juniper was seething with a simmering passion. Slowly as the three began to play off one another’s strengths, the circle grew more tightly fit. The lines between the three women blurred and readers began to understand that the source of their power came not from their individual strengths but in the strength of their bond.
What I like most about this is in viewing it in the context of the historical setting. The women’s suffrage movement is a perfect parallel to the witch trials. Society deemed women they could not understand as temptresses and witches. They were reviled and cast out. Similarly, women leading the suffrage movement were blasted by the media and fear mongering politicians as evil women bent upon the destruction of men. Both were mischaracterized as enemies of moral order. In reality, they were women who wished to live their lives as they chose. They wanted freedom and power. Not power over all mankind, but merely power over their own decisions, bodies, and property. So while this novel is fantasy, it’s still highly relevant considering its place in history and its place in today’s current political climate. We’d be lying to ourselves if we said women aren’t still reviled in positions of power and influence by those who refuse to understand they might just have a fucking point. It’s despicable to imagine the hordes of angry men beating a young woman simply for protesting antiquated laws that have stolen her vote. But is it really that difficult to believe? Have we not watched similar actions by angry mobs merely in the past few months? Ignorance breeds hate, and it doesn’t need a valid reason because hate is always unreasonable and is rarely justified.
“Or perhaps for all of them: for the little girls thrown in cellars and the grown women sent to workhouses, the mothers who shouldn’t have died and the witches who shouldn’t have burned. For all the women punished merely for wanting what they shouldn’t.”Alix E. Harrow, “The Once and Future Witches”
There are multiple relevant societal themes in this book in addition to the issue of women’s rights. Themes of racial injustice and LGBTQ rights also play an important role in this book. And the author is quick to point out that prejudice can exist anywhere. Readers are quite shocked to hear of Juniper’s disapproval of Beatrice’s relationship with a woman. But we’re also subsequently presented with the idea that people can and do adapt and progress when they are presented with more information. This is an important distinction. The lines between good and evil aren’t always as well defined as in fantasy worlds in classic literature. In real life people are multi-layered and complicated, but most of us can be talked down from bad ideas if possessing an open enough mind.
I realize I’ve droned on an awful lot without actually going into much of the plot of this book, but with a book like this that’s rather difficult, because it’s a journey that I’d rather not spoil for another reader. Suffice to say it’s a satisfying story that is difficult to read, at times, but will culminate in something that the reader doesn’t look back on with regret. There’s a well-defined villain, if that’s your jam, but if you’re willing to peel away the surface to analyze the various demons that humans always inflict upon our fellow citizens, feel free to dive right in, because there’s plenty here. This novel is at once sad, brutal, and savage in its honesty. But it’s ultimately moving and inspiring. I loved every second of it and count it among the best books I’ve read in recent memory. 5 Stars for Alix Harrow and her delightful Eastwood sisters.