“We may be either beloved or burned, but never trusted with any degree of power.”
There’s no such thing as witches in New Salem in 1893. But there used to be. You can still catch traces of them in the witch-tales collected by the Sisters Grimm; in the stories of the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone–the Last Three–as they struggled to preserve the final vestiges of their power. You can hear them, the ones who came before and burned before, in the second name every mother gives every daughter, and in the special words shared only in whispered songs and stories.
Once upon a time in this world, on the spring equinox of 1893, there are three sisters. James Juniper Eastwood is the youngest. She is wild, she is canny, she is feral. She is running away or running toward. She is lost.
Agnes Amaranth is the middle sister–the one the witch-tales say isn’t destined for adventure. She is the strongest of the three, the steadiest. She is the one who is supposed to take care of her sisters until she has to choose between them and surviving–until she becomes weak.
Beatrice Belladonna is the eldest; the wisest. She is the quiet one, the listening one who loves books almost as much as her sisters. Until seven years away break her down. Until she recognizes herself as a fool.
Maybe these three sisters are the start of the story. Maybe they’re the start of something bigger. In the beginning, there’s still no such thing as witches. But there will be in The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow.
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A prologue and epilogue from Juniper frame what is otherwise an omniscient third person narration shifting between the three sisters as, against all odds, they cross paths for the first time in seven years at a women’s suffrage rally in St. George Square in New Salem.
The Once and Future Witches is thick with betrayals and misunderstandings as Juniper still harbors anger and resentment at being left behind while both Agnes and Bella struggle with their own reasons for leaving the others behind. Themes of both sisterhood and feminism weave this story together as the Eastwood girls try to tap into magic long thought lost and reclaim everything that has been stolen from them and so many other women.
At more than five hundred pages, this is an unwieldy book. All of the sisters have their own secret stories and hurts which Harrow explores alongside the grander narrative of discovering how witching was eradicated and how it might be reclaimed. The characters are careful to acknowledge white privilege as the mainstream suffrage movement excludes women of color and the world also hints at indigenous witches in Mississippi and out west. However, given the scope of the story, Harrow’s efforts at inclusion often feel like faint hints in this alternate history rather than concrete changes.
The Once and Future Witches is a complex alternate history wrapped in folklore, fairy tales, and a plaintive rallying cry for equality centering three sisters as they find their way back to the sisterhood and the magic they had thought long lost to them.
Possible Pairings: Spellbook For the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One by Amanda Lovelace, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski