I really liked this book. To quote the book itself, it’s “witchy as hell.” Honestly, the only thing keeping me from giving this five stars is that the style of the writing didn’t perfectly gel with me, and that is obviously very subjective. I would looooove to see this adapted as a limited event series on a premium streaming service or network.
The premise here is that we’re in an alternate history where magic and witches were once real, not just scapegoats for whatever was frightening the patriarchy at the time (if you don’t know about the history of witch hats and alewives, please click this link). It’s now 1893, and witches and witchery have long been gone from the world, thanks to a purge led by St. George. All that remains of magic is little things passed down from mother to daughter: mending a hem, a small light in the dark to find a needle in a sewing box, a little something to ease a birth along. Such magic is often scorned as “women’s magic.”
Our three main characters are the sisters Eastwood: Juniper, Agnes, and Bella, who were separated by circumstance seven years before, and who are all traumatized by a painful childhood with an abusive father after their mother died in childbirth. They find themselves drawn together in New Salem at the start of the summer in 1893 (Old Salem burned down in the 1600s; the witch trials went a little bit differently here, with magic being real). Juniper is a fiery, restless, angry young woman out to start trouble. Agnes just wants to survive. And Bella, who was sent to an asylum SPOILERS when she was caught making time with the baker’s daughter (I think it was the baker’s daughter? someone correct me if I’m wrong) END SPOILERS has extra trauma and self-esteem issues on top of that she and her sisters experienced at the hands of their father.
I loved almost everything about this whole set-up. I loved that the way we get into the story is through suffragists, but it expands from there. The setting of Salem in the late 1800s is a fruitful one. Harrow does such a great job portraying the city and its inhabitants, and the various attitudes, both hidden and out in the open, towards women and witchcraft and the social norm. There are characters in here all across all spectrums of life: women, men, trans people, gay, straight, black, white, native, rich, poor, sex workers, immigrants, midwives and Gibson Girls, and more in between. The villain was suitably creepy, although I did think he could have used a bit more humanizing towards the end so that he was a bit more understandable and less, I don’t know, outlandish? And Harrow takes classic tales of witchcraft, folklore, and fairy-tales, even history, and spins them just enough so that they feel really fresh, and you believe you’re living in an alternate earth.
Something that I found sort of discombobulating about this book is that the pacing was very strange, but not in a bad way, I don’t think. I kept expecting things to happen much later than they were actually happening. As a result, I kept getting surprised by the narrative. It felt like, well, this already happened, so where is this book going exactly? And that was exciting. I also did become way more affected by the ending than I thought I would be. Tears were shed.
If you like fantasy, especially historical fantasy, and witches, and stories about women and friendship and family, definitely check this one out. I was for some reason skeptical about Harrow’s debut when it was published, despite a lot of people I know liking it a lot, but I’m definitely going to have to check it out now. (Also, Harrow was apparently floating the idea of a sister novel to this one on Twitter, not really a sequel but more of a companion, exploring the Daughters of Tituba since they didn’t really get as much focus here because the main story was with the Eastwoods, and I would very much be down for that!)