Title: The Once and Future Witches (review copy)
Author: Alice E. Harrow
Genre/Themes: Folklore and Legend, Historical Fantasy, Witches, Feminism
Blurb from Goodreads
In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.
But when the Eastwood sisters–James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna–join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement.
Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.
There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.
Last year I had the good fortune to receive an advanced review copy of The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow and I absolutely adored it. I was charmed by the characters, the plot, the prose, everything. I loved it so much that I even bought a copy of it in hardback. You can read my full review for The Ten Thousand Doors of January HERE.
Therefore Harrow’s next novel, The Once and Future Witches, was immediately placed on my TBR and I was thrilled to once again get an ARC of it from NetGalley.
Sadly I had a very different reaction to this book and I’m rather disappointed because the majority of early reviews for The Once and Future Witches are overwhelmingly positive …. so why do I feel like I read a different novel?
I feel I should begin by mentioning that I recently read Alice Hoffman’s Magic Lessons which is also a book about witches (set in the 1600s though). That book is one I greatly enjoyed and I think because that too explores the feminine through witching that reading another witchy-type book so soon after had a negative impact on my enjoyment. I usually like to mix up the themes of my close-together reads because I do have a tendency to get bored if they touch on any similar subjects.
The story in The Once and Future Witches follows three estranged sisters as they come together to fight for women’s rights in 1893 in New Salem. So hello feminism and placing women front and centre which I typically love!
But these three sisters, James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna, also want to bring back the old powers of women’s witching through their suffragette type movement, because in this world witches and witching are a thing of the past. Old Salem was burned to the ground and all the powerful witches along with it. Witching now is just fairytales, nursery rhymes, and small charms.
As the tag line for the book says “There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.”
What I liked about this book is that it is a book about women reclaiming their agency, their power and I enjoyed how it explored the ideas of sisterhood through its many forms (blood, friendship, love). The book dissected the many hurdles there are in creating a movement to fight oppression. Whether those were outside obstacles from others in society (fear, intolerance, prejudice etc.) or the inner barriers that women face (self-acceptance, fear of change, anger at their plight etc.)
And I liked how it wove together aspects of history, myths and fairytales to create a really interesting and unique setting for the novel…
But after that I struggled.
This is primarily a character driven novel which are typically my favourite kinds of books. And one could argue that each sister (and each supporting character) are unique in their descriptions and actions etc… but I found them all to be quite flat. Especially the three sisters. I really don’t feel that they ever truly became more than the trope on which they were based i.e. the maiden, the mother and the crone. And I also feel there were too many characters in my opinion which made it difficult for me to really remember who was who at times. To me this novel just lacked an emotional connection.
I think however, that my inability to connect with the main characters of the three sisters, and to see them as anything other than the tropes on which they were based, probably stems from the fact I was so painfully bored by this book.
From the earliest chapters I felt like I was all at sea. I found the writing style to be incredibly repetitive and very info-dumpy. The pacing of the book drove me batty too! At times I was very engaged and eagerly turned the pages (there were some gripping and intense moments)… but more often than not I found the pace to be painfully slow moving and reading felt more like a chore. I had to force myself to keep reading because this was an ARC that I was committed to reviewing.
Unfortunately The Once and Future Witches just wasn’t to my personal taste.
*An e-copy was kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley for honest review*
This edition publishing 15th October 2020, Orbit / Little Brown Book Group UK