Book Review of Alix E. Harrow’s The Once and Future Witches by Kaja Brown.
The will, the words, and the ways – these are the only things you need for witchcraft according to The Once and Future Witches, and it’s no mistake that this is all you need to be an activist too. The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow is a fictional grimoire filled with tantalising tales that would make even the shyest witch don her suffragette sash and take to the streets in protest.
And this book has worked its magic on me. It includes everything I love; strong female protagonists; lesbian main characters; folklore, magic and activism — all woven into one fantastic novel. Top this with Harrow’s beautiful and compelling writing style and this makes for a spell book that is nearly impossible to step away from.
The story is set in an alternative 19th century New Salem and follows three sisters, James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna – who are respectively a mother, maiden and a crone – that set out to find the lost ways of witchcraft to give women the power in an oppressive, misogynistic society. This book tips out the contents of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and uses the history of the Salem Witch Trials to create something new and profound.
These themes are incredibly important at a time when 97% of women in the UK have reported being harassed on the streets, and we are still reeling after the brutal murder of Sarah Everard. We need books like this which explore the importance of feminism and the resilience and power of women. The protagonists of the novel seek out to smash the oppressive nature of the white patriarchy and do so by forming an activist group of people from all backgrounds (women of colour, working class, trans, lesbian, mothers, sex workers, etc.) to pool their resources and use the forgotten ways of witchcraft to bring about social change. The book tackles many issues and looks at how although things are horrible for women, they are even worse for women of colour, and the character Miss Cleopatra Quinn, (who may also be an exciting love interest for one of the sisters) helps educate the sisters and the reader on matters of equality and institutional racism.
This book is clearly thoroughly researched and weaves history, folklore, fairytales and spells into the fabric of the story. Something I particularly enjoyed within this novel is the use of folk tales and nursery rhymes. It is discovered that although women are not allowed to practise witchcraft, the witchy ways have been passed down in ‘women’s things’ such as fairy tales for children, poetry books, stitching and recipes. Some chapters are separated with full fairy tales with Harrow’s own take on them, which readers will enjoy if they are a fan of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit or Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. The tales serve a purpose of grounding or foreshadowing events in the book as well as drawing out the misconceptions of evil witches and what these characters truly represent. The world building is incredible and it is all these tales and details which makes it an incredibly immersive read.
I can’t recommend it enough. The Once and Future Witches left me contemplating philosophy, society, feminism and my own views on witchcraft and left me with a political itch that’s hard to scratch. If you want a read that will put a fire in your belly, to help you through this tumultuous time when we feel the most powerless, then this is it. Learn to reclaim your power, just as the three sisters do in this book.
And please let me know what you think once you have read it.
Did you enjoy this book review? Please let me know down below! Also please recommend other books you love that have themes of activism and powerful women in them.