The Once and Future Witches – Alix E. Harrow 🇬🇧

The witches in this book are fierce, hungry and they don’t ask you politely to step aside – they just take the room for themselves. This is something that reminded me of the Mayfair Witches in the novels of Anne Rice, but Alix E. Harrow takes a different route with the Eastwood sisters in her novel „The Once and Future Witches“.

The main characters are the three sisters James Juniper, Beatrice Belladonna and Agnes Amaranth, which are distanced in the beginning due to some very hard choices in their past and a dysfunctional family life under the tyranny of their father. Each of them carries a heavy load of personal baggage around. They meet again in New Salem, the City Without Sin, when a powerful spell shows them an opportunity for the return of witchcraft into their lifes.

Let’s just stick here for a moment with the world building and the alternate American History the author is spinning. The main historic events that drive this story are the Salem Witch Trials, the American Civil War and the Fight for Women’s Rights at the end of the 19th century. Segregation by race and the war of the classes are facts. With C. P. Quinn we are introduced to a black character early on – one that defies the rules of society. We find Agnes working under inhumane conditions in a mill at the beginning, working 12 hour shifts on the loom and residing in a moldy boarding house in a poor neighbourhood. The owner of the mill is constantly leering on the women working for him, groping the new girls on their first day.

Witchcraft has been banned after the events of the Salem Witchcraft Trials. In this story, the trials are held by a Christian Saint called George of Hyll, a „saviour“ that burnt the Three Last Witches of the West and the whole town of Old Salem with them. It is by accident, that the three sisters summon an ancient Tower into the City Square of Salem, thereby discovering the spells and magic of the witches of the past. Naturally there is a threat in the figure of a male – the candidate for mayor, Gideon Hill. Soon the sisters are wanted for „most wicked witchcraft“ and have to fight against Hill and the Inquisition apparatus he commands.

Characters from the diversity textbook

Let’s have a closer look at the characters in this highly readable novel. While reading it something kept nagging at me, but I couldn’t put my finger on what was not right. Only a couple of days after finishing the story, my mind kept returning to the characters of the three sisters. And then I understood: The witchcraft personnel is created from a How-to-write-characters-textbook.

Firstly, the sisters themselves: representing the archtypes of maiden, mother and crone, the sisters lack a certain depth of character development in my opinion. While Juniper is the fierce, and sometimes feral, maiden, she represents the strong will of change and youth, leading to some very stupid decisions along the way. Agnes is the mother, driven by an urge to keep save what is hers. And finally there is Beatrice/Bella, a librarian with spectacles (really?), a shy woman who is always consulting the written word. I am not going to tell you, what her familiar might me, you can guess.

And the stereotypes do not end there – yes, you have a queer character, a collection of colored women in the supporting roles, a gay character, some empowered sex workers, a voodoo priestess and Mr. August Lee, the shining example of a man supporting a woman. Don’t get me wrong, I am very happy with a range of characters that represent the many, many different people of this world. But I think it would have been better, if it was done a bit less obvious, a bit less in-your-face. Yes, a novel needs to exaggerate on it’s dramatic plot points to gain momentum. But the execution here lacks a certain elegance and wit on the level of the characters. When I read about Grace Wiggin in the first three chapters, I knew where that would lead. It’s written in large, red letters all over her.

“As a man of God I disapprove, but as a mere man, well . . . I wonder sometimes where the first witch came from. If perhaps Adam deserved Eve’s curse.” His smile twists. “If behind every witch is a woman wronged.”

The Once and Future Witches

Magic does not care for your gender

The magic system is great – at first we are led to believe that it is a women’s thing. There is talk of „male magic“, which can only be used my men and „witchcraft“ which is for women. In the end it turns out that magic does not care for your gender, race or social standing. It is just a question of will, words and ways. This very traditional way of magic works perfectly in the novels environment and adds a lot to the atmosphere.

The chapters are introduced by spells , comprised from lullabies, nursery rhymes or fairytale stories – texts taught mostly by mothers to their children. At some point in the chapter they are used by one of the characters and we learn about their practial use. I liked that a lot, since it ties it all together quite nicely.

A perfect page turner for this winter

Would I recommend this book to my fellow reading friends? Definitely. „The Once and Future Witches“ is a great read – Alix E. Harrow wrote a pretty neat novel here. Despite the flaws in character building and some unsolved minor plot points, the story of the Eastwood Sisters is inventive and a refreshing take on the subject of witches. The ties to the traditional witchcraft topic via Old Salem and the spells hidden in fairytales and nursery rhymes are well-researched. All in all a very solid 4 out of 5 stars.

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