It’s 1893, and the witchways are gone from the world. There is no more big magic: no more calling of storms, no curing of plagues, no blessings on fields and pastures. But a little magic still exits. Women still charm the wrinkles out of shits, bewitch bread from burning in the oven, or enchant a needle to be threaded on the first attempt. Though she has been living with just her abusive father for the last several years, Juniper Eastwood, a wild and ferocious independent young woman, finds herself in New Salem and suddenly reunited with her two older sisters, Agnes, stern yet motherly, and Bella, wise and bookish. Together, they unite to bring back the old, grand witchways even faced with a new bunch of witch hunters led by an insidious and mysterious city councilman Gideon Hill.
I feel like this is another truly fantastic idea that author Alix E Harrow has created just like her first work, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, was. And also similar to her first attempt, this idea feels wasted. The premise is great. Magic and witching has been passed down from mother to daughter through fairy tales, folklore, family songs, nursery rhymes, and community traditions. Spells have been stitched into the hems of dresses or coded into family recipes or hidden away in pithy sayings. The key to witches coming back into power is their will and their ways. What has been written off by men and women comfortable with the status quo turns into the weapons and kindling that witches use to seize their power back.
However, execution of these ideas left me wanting. This books first and foremost is entirely too long. There is so much jumping around from character to character wondering what other characters are thinking or feeling when we could just stick with one character for just a little bit and actually get insights to thoughts and feelings. It all feels like filler. This frequent jumping and wondering about others also meant that I never really connected with any characters deeply. I truly did not care about the story or characters until about 300 pages into this 500+ page book.
And also similar to one of my biggest complaints of The Ten Thousand Doors of January, it again feels like Harrow has a checklist of diversity that needs to be checked off. There are Black witches who speak vaguely and sparsely about their experiences but we never get anywhere near a complete picture of who those women are or what their lives are really like. We, as modern readers reading about about the 19th century, are just supposed to connect the dots and then fill in the picture with what he know about history to guess what their lives are like. Additionally, there is reveal in the last 75 pages that one of the characters is a transwoman. Like, great. I’m glad that there’s trans representation but this character basically said “Oh by the way, I’m trans” and then that’s the end of that. Check that box and move on. Harrow had all these characters that could have been so rich and complex but instead they get a mention in passing so that we can spend more time with characters wondering about what other characters are wondering about.