I’ve been escaping some of the heavier research reading I am doing for work/project through fantasy/fiction audiobooks. The last one wasn’t entirely a dud but also didn’t leave me with that ecstatic, “I’m so happy I’ve consumed this story and can’t wait to read more” feeling. This one, The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, was also somewhere in the grey zone for me; somewhere between being really good and thoughtful, but also not being something I was consuming with great vigor either.
The set up for this story is really something special. We are introduced to the three Eastwood sisters, Bella, Agnes, and James Juniper, against the backdrop of the 1800s suffragette movement. Each sister narrates a chapter, setting up all three to reunite amidst a mysterious, magical, witchy event. In this world, witches supposedly don’t exist, but they used to, and every woman worth a damn knows a bit of “woman’s” magic meant to help out here or there in small witchy ways. The sisters themselves are not unfamiliar with these ways, through the work of their grandmother in secret from their abusive and controlling father. They’ve all managed to escape home, but not the resulting trauma of their childhood and when we meet them, we learn quickly that their relationship is fraught with childhood betrayals that have severed their bond. This story is as much about recovery and restoring a family as it is about bringing witching, a lovely metaphor for the power of women, back into the world.
Every part of me should have adored this book. Harrow weaves folk lore into every chapter. It’s tied to historical people and places. She doesn’t shy away from including Black women, queer women, and trans women (which so many other books set in this era might do). Through the vehicle of witching she is able to tackle really interesting ideas around power dynamics between women and men both publicly in within the home and between women and other women. The way trauma and all its after effects manifest is so very well done. All of this is set up and done very, very well!
In the end though I didn’t have a lot of drive to finish this book. I can’t really explain it. It took a long time for me to care very much about the characters, their relationships, and motivations. Really, until the third act I can’t say I was hooked, and I likely only kept listening because it was an audiobook and I have been working on a project that allows me to hit “play” and keep going.
It’s good and I do recommend it. The magic is magical, as are the settings, characters, themes, and ideas. Perhaps, I may have actually liked it more reading it rather than listening. I’m not sure exactly how to recommend this book but it’s definitely a solid read.