The Once and Future Witches is a powerful tale of feminism, magic and sisterhood

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow. Image Courtesy Image Courtesy Orbit & Redhook
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow. Image Courtesy Image Courtesy Orbit & Redhook /

A perfect spooky season literary treat, Alix E. Harrow’s The Once and Future Witches is a lyrical, moving ode to magic, sisterhood, and the inherent power in all women.

This year, perhaps more than most, I think we could all do with a story about the power of determined and rebellious women. Luckily, Aix E. Harrow’s The Once and Future Witches is right on time, here to bless this spooky season with a story about witchcraft, magic, and the kind of global sisterhood that makes us all stronger together than we are apart.

Set in an alternate version of 1893 America where witchcraft is very real, very illegal and almost vanished from the world entirely. It now exists only in legends and books, childhood tales and lore, and in the stories of women who wanted – and claimed – more than society said they were supposed to have.

The story follows the tale of three sisters, as all good stories do. The Eastwood girls share an abusive father, a complicated history, and plenty of mistakes and betrayals between them. Beatrice Belladonna is the eldest, a researcher who possesses an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a deep-set fear of her true desires. Agnes Amaranth Eastwood is the middle child, who trusts few and cares about even less. And James Juniper is the wild, youngest daughter, full of rage and pain, and lost without the sisters who once grounded her.

However, after seven years apart, the Eastwood sisters are reunited in the town of New Salem – built after the historical Old Salem was destroyed by the last great witch uprising – when a strange rose-covered tower appears in the town square. It feels as though magic may well be returning – and suddenly anything seems possible, even bringing lost sisters back together.

As the Eastwoods investigate the tower’s appearance and whether the mythical Lost Way of Avalon is real, they find themselves swept up in the movement for women’s suffrage, facing off against non-magical everyday oppression like racism and sexism, with a heaping dose of fear, ignorance and general persecution of the other thrown on top. But with the help of New Salem’s working class, Black and other marginalized communities, they’ll tentatively start down the road to bring magic – real magic – back to the world, and give their sisters – both biological and figurative – the chance to choose their own futures.

Harrow’s writing is lush and lyrical, spinning a tale as easily as if she were a crone herself. Her imagery is beautiful, as is the sly way she repeatedly slips recognizable bits of history and folklore into the world she’s weaving around us. The novel’s secondary characters are as compelling as its three leads, as a variety of diverse characters join forces with the Eastwood sisters to return magic to the world – even some you wouldn’t expect. The way that Harrow represents different cultural and gender-based attitudes toward magic, spellwork, and lore is fascinating, and I would absolutely read another book in this universe that delved deeper into the Black or Native experience with magic.

The Once and Future Witches is a fantasy and a myth, a family drama, and a reminder of the strength all women inherently possess. It is also a call to action, urging us all to stand up against oppression, push back against misogyny and protect the least of us whenever we can. And, honestly, I can’t think of a better message to carry to the end of this hell year.

We are the daughters of the witches you couldn’t burn.

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The Once and Future Witches is available now. Let us know if you’ll be adding it to your must-read list!