"The Once and Future Witches" review
Title: The Once and Future Witches
Author: Alix E. Harrow
Subgenre: Historical fiction
2021 Bingo squares: A-Z genre guide, Cat squasher, Trans/nonbinary character, Witches
Alix Harrow’s The Once and Future Witches is a historical fiction novel about suffragists (except they’re also witches) and sisters (and they’re also witches). It’s equal parts angry, beautiful, and heartbreaking. The prose is lovely, with sweet little alliterations snuck in as the witches discover the wills, words, and ways to change their world. And Gideon Hill is definitely not based on Mitch McConnell according to the Goodreads Q&A:
no!! if he were based on mitch, who has been the senator of my state since before i was born, i would have described him as “the pale remains of a box turtle stuffed in a suit and tie” or “zombie palpatine.”
James Juniper (the youngest sister), Agnes Amaranth (the middle sister), and Beatrice Belladonna (the oldest sister) have all found themselves in New Salem, away from home. Juniper is accused of murder and looking for help; her two sisters have been there for a while, both having previously run away from home and leaving her there alone. She doesn’t understand why they left her. But something has bound the three sisters, and they’re drawn together again.
Juniper wants to become a suffragist and teach the suffrage ladies magic; this sets the tone of the novel.
Juniper’s eyes reflect the bronze shine of Saint George’s standing in the square. “Witching and women’s rights. Suffrage and spells. They’re both…” She gestures in midair again. “They’re both a kind of power, aren’t they? The kind we aren’t allowed to have.” The kind I want, says the hungry shine of her eyes.
What follows is an inclusive story: women fight for women’s rights, and so do (some) men. Trans women are women. There’s a prominent lesbian relationship and a prominent straight relationship. Witchcraft is very clearly symbolic for feminist power in society, and the The Once and Future Witches is in no way apologetic about it. This is a novel about protesting loudly, not quietly, when you want societal change.
It’s also very much a fantasy novel: There’s a magical library, powerful nursery rhymes, familiars, references to fairy tales, magical rituals, and, of course, witchcraft. The magic is just as central to the plot and world as any other part of the setting.
The collection and curation of knowledge in a library is a central theme of the novel, which is appropriate given its setting around the turn of the 20th century, when the American public library was beginning to expand. The phrase “public library” doesn’t appear anywhere in the novel (other than the acknowledgements - Alex Harrow mentions the “courtyard of the Madison County Public Library”), but the magical library is the destination of the collective knowledge of the witches, and this collective knowledge is viewed as a treasure. The real-world counterpart would be the massive growth of American public libraries thanks in large part to Carnegie grants, which largely served immigrants and other working-class populations in both large cities and small towns in early 20th-century America. These libraries also provided educated employment for women, who worked as trained librarians.
Knowledge in the hands of women is power, and power is witchcraft. Family is everything. Gideon Hill may not be Mitch McConnell, but he sucks a lot, and we can overcome him. This novel is a beautiful, touching, heart-wrenching standalone that I highly recommend.