In 1893, three estranged sisters feel themselves pulled by magic to the middle of New Salem’s town square where a tower suddenly appears, surrounded by thick forest, with a murder of crows circling overhead. Just as suddenly, the tower vanishes. Where the tower stood the sisters find each other, while the townsfolk around them dissolve into panic.
So begins The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow. This book is set against the backdrop of the suffragette movement with plot elements that echo the witch hunts of the late 1600s. The sisters are confronted with their own family drama, the political unrest of the suffragette movement, and a villain who could have walked straight out of the pages of a fairy tale.
There was a lot going on in this novel with many threads of the story requiring introduction, build, and resolution. All three sisters were given their own distinctive sub plots, replete with backstories that inform and build interpersonal conflict. A decent amount of the story is dedicated to explaining the reasons behind the sisters’ estrangement, and concerned with whether they will overcome the obstacles of their past. In addition to the family drama, there are the magical plot elements; characters defeated or redeemed by magic. Fairy tales are interwoven throughout the novel to enhance the magical plot lines. On top of all of that is an overarching theme of the fight for women’s rights, including: improved labor and living conditions, the historical fight to vote, women’s abilities to live openly as witches, and touching upon the challenges for witches of color and LGBTQ witches.
Perhaps because the book had so much going on, I struggled to fully connect to the first half of the novel. I felt like something was missing, and I think that something was a sense of purposefulness. It is not that the book lacked direction. I could feel the author had a lot of ideas and intentions, but the execution felt off; as if the author wasn’t quite sure which bits were most important to the plot. However, at the point the villain was revealed (approximately midway through the novel) the novel hit its stride with focused and steady pacing. Despite being slightly underwhelmed at the start, I was thoroughly engaged for the last half of the book.
The Once and Future Witches is Harrow’s second novel. Her first book, The Ten Thousand Doors of January was beautifully written with passages that I re-read just to savor the prose. Thus, I expected a lot from Harrow’s second release. Although I found both stories to be conceptually interesting, this time around I missed the lyrical quality of her first book. I found this especially true each time a fairy tale was inserted into the plot. I expected the short story fairy tale interludes to be more artfully spun. Instead, they were a little lackluster.
That being said, there was a great deal I enjoyed. I thought it was a particularly keen choice to ground the novel in the historical timeframe of the suffragette movement – such a key historic time for women’s rights – yet, add the danger and tension shared by the witch hunts and trials of a much earlier Salem. Although the setting was historic, much of the fight for women to live in society safely, openly, and equitably continues today. Harrow wrote a story that feels both current and historical. The Once and Future Witches is a worthy addition to any book list of witchy tales.