Why You Need to Read: “The Once and Future Witches”

The Once and Future Witches

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Historical Fantasy, Folklore, Paranormal

            …“The Tale of Saint George and the Witches.” It’s never been one of her favorites, but she reads it anyway.

            It’s the usual version: once upon a time there were three wicked witches who loosed a terrible plague on the world. But brave Saint George of Hyll rose against them. He purged witching from the world, leaving nothing but ashes behind him. 

            Finally only the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone remained, the last and wickedest of witches. They fled to Avalon and hid in a tall tower, but in the end Saint George burned the Three and their tower with them, (3). 

            2020 was a memorable year in and of itself. This was unfortunate because events of the present—which, I won’t list in this review—did not allow us to celebrate any milestones. One in particular was the ratification of the 19thAmendment which extended the right to vote to women, which occurred on August 18, 1920. This was a huge event because the movement for women’s rights—known as the Suffrage Movement—launched on a national level with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. And yes, similar movements were occurring in other countries around the world. This is one example out of many which demonstrates how long women had to fight and to protest to have their voice heard within the government. Alix E. Harrow gives readers her historical interpretation of this movement—with elements of witchcraft—in her second novel, The Once and Future Witches

            There are 3 protagonists in this novel, the Eastwood sisters: Beatrice Belladonna, Agnes Amaranth and James Juniper. Circumstances have brought the sisters together in New Salem in 1893 on the spring equinox. Agnes, Bella and Juniper have neither seen nor communicated with each other in 7 years. And yet, they still feel like the family they once were regardless of what led them to their current predicaments: Bella is a librarian, Agnes works at a mill, and Juniper has left home (and is a wanted woman). Societal norms and gender stereotypes have placed the sisters in situations where they cannot hope to progress further in life. That is unless they decide to join the local suffrage group, and to practice the magic they were taught from their grandmother, Mama Mags. As these sisters reconnect and reclaim what was denied to them their entire lives, they realize that more is at stake than just having the freedom to practice magic, to vote, and to be a woman. And, they won’t have to do it alone. Joining the Eastwood sisters are: Cleopatra Quinn, a journalist and a member of the Colored Suffrage Movement from New Cairo; August S. Lee, a factory worker from Chicago who has a knack for fighting for fair treatment for factory workers and for practicing “male” witchcraft; and, several members of the Sisters of Avalon, local women who are willingly to use magic in order to receive fair treatment. The antagonists include: Gideon Hill, the ambitious politician, who knows more about witchcraft than he should; and, his ward, Grace Wiggins, who is the head of the Women’s Christian Union—an organization of women who are “content” with the way things are, and are against all suffrage groups and witchcraft. All of these characters develop at they push for what they believe in, and they are more complex than they first appear. These characters deserve our sympathy and our empathy. 

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is the female characters who decide to go rogue and to form their own suffrage group which permits them to use witchcraft the patriarchy has denied them for centuries. It seems whenever suffrage groups get closer to achieving their right to vote, society finds a way to “punish” these women, which forces them to learn witchcraft so that they have a way to fight back. However, why is it that magic is stronger in females than in males? The second plot surrounds the legend of “The Last Three Witches of the West” and “The Lost Way of Avalon.” In this book, everyone is familiar with the story of Saint George of Hyll and his “victory” over the witches and the destruction of their stronghold. Yet, Bella, Agnes and Juniper are able to find evidence the witches and the Tower of Avalon did and could still exist. The sisters are able to locate the Tower’s entrance and discover what is inside. The sisters learn the origins of the Tower and its “demise” and the connection it has to the present. There are 2 subplots in this novel, and they embellish the plots and allow them to go at an appropriate rate. The first subplot focuses on how society was “operated” towards the end of the 19th century; labor laws weren’t formed yet, Jim Crow and segregation were practiced, and females of all ages were subjected to misogyny from most of the males in their lives: fathers, male relations (who were favored for inheritance), bosses, politicians, etc. Females had little to no say over their lives, and they could find themselves arrested and imprisoned for refusing to follow these laws—mothers lost custody of their children—because social norms believed males were “superior” to females. The second subplot follows how witchcraft was able to exist alongside those who shunned and tried to expunge it. The question is, why? Was it due to fear, or because women were better at witchcraft than men? Once everything has been revealed to the characters (and the readers), how will they react? 

            The narrative in this novel is very intriguing. The narration follows the points-of-view of Bella, Agnes and Juniper in 3rd person limited narrative, which presents what each protagonist is experiencing at the moment without the other ones knowing about it. However, there is a slight difference in this narration. Magic allows the Eastwood Sisters to feel one another’s emotions, which allows them to know what is happening to the others at any given moment. The sequence is interesting as well because as the narration is presented in the present in real-time, the story halts whenever a “story” is being told by one of the characters. While the concept of “a story within a story” is nothing new, the presentation of the stories by the characters offers readers the chance to delve into the narrative even more. The narrators are reliable because readers follow their streams-of-consciousness and their memories of the pleasant and the traumatic, which makes the narrative easy to follow. 

            The style Alix E. Harrow uses for The Once and Future Witches is a tribute to all elements of folklore familiar and unfamiliar to her readers. The title is an allusion to the novel, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, but has the setting and the mood of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, this novel is not only a retelling of folklore, but also a retelling of societal practices from over one hundred years ago. Labor and factory workers suffered long workdays with little pay, women had to follow the rules set by their fathers and their husbands and other laws otherwise they would be punished, and the blatant racism which saw segregation as a legal and an acceptable social practice. All of these are mentioned within the book as well as all of the advocates who pushed for equal rights and fair treatment such as: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This novel is full of allusions to tropes from folklore and familiar tales: Avalon; the number 3; shadows, Maiden, Mother and Crone; witches, Christianity, etc. Also, Alix E. Harrow includes some of her “fractured fairy tales” throughout the story. A fractured fairy tale are stories in which “a writer or storyteller rewrites and refines them for the world we now live in,” (Yolen). Elements and/or familiar parts of a known story—Cinderella attends a festival, Sleeping Beauty must fall asleep at some point, etc.—but everything else is altered so the variant is presented as a new one. The storyteller is able to have fun with these tales as they have more freedom to tell the story that reflect their atmosphere. The Once and Future Witches is a combination of historical fiction and numerous fractured fairy tales, which presents readers with a unique historical fantasy story. The mood in this novel is oppression. Several of the characters—including the protagonists—are subjected to oppression and are willing to do anything to fight against those who dominate them. The tone in this novel refers to the legacy of witchcraft and spells; if they are not supposed to be practiced, then how has the knowledge survived since the death of the last coven of witches? It could be argued that the tone pertains to who has access to witchcraft and what it entails, especially those in power. 

            The appeal for this novel have been highly positive. Based on other ratings and reviews, it appears readers enjoyed The Once and Future Witches as much as or even more than the author’s first novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. It needs to be mentioned that the 2 books—while they belong in the speculative fiction canon—are of different subgenres. The former is a historical fantasy about witches, which is categorized in the paranormal and the urban fantasy (and the witches) subgenres. The latter is a portal fantasy, which is a subgenre of fantasy. Readers need to understand these books are different, yet enjoyable. Fans of The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon and the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden will enjoy this book the most.

            The Once and Future Witches is more than a story about witchcraft, it is a combination of various folklore and moments in history. Alix E. Harrow celebrates the centennial of the 19th Amendment by gifting her readers a harsh reminder of how society used to be, and how we take certain rights for granted. If anything else, then you should read this story for the (fractured) fairy tales. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

                                                      Works Cited

Yolen, Jane. How to Fracture a Fairy Tale. E-Book, Tachyon Publications, 2018. 

Essential Reads: Books for Women’s History Month

In the United States, March is Women’s History Month. However, March 8this International Women’s Day. So, the entire planet acknowledges half of its population for one day. And, similar to Black History Month, we tend to recognize the same figures over and over. While this is not as problematic as with the figures from other demographics, it is easy to overlook women whose achievements get overshadowed by others.

            For this recommendation, I’m going to select a woman from each region throughout the world, and from ancient history to modern times. Some of these women are notable, some more obscure. In all, these women give insight to the challenges within the society and how they met them head on. You might not know all of their names, but you’ll know about their resilience against oppression. 

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban(2012) by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

            Everyone has heard of her, but do you know of the events that led to Malala Yousafzai’s shooting? Besides learning about the Yousafzai Family and their notion that everyone deserves to be educated, you’ll learn about the practices of Islam, the recent history of Pakistan, and the rise of the Taliban. This book is a real-life cautionary tale surrounding political interference, terrorist groups, and human rights. Malala Yousafzai is the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and her story about her life, her country, and her culture should be read by anyone who is interested in human rights. 

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China(1991) by Jung Chang

            This family saga follows three generations of women who survived the social norms and the social changes within China during the 20thCentury. Jung Change uses her family history to tell China’s narrative and how it affected not just her family, but families throughout the world. Jung’s grandmother was a warlord’s concubine during the ending of the practice of foot-binding. Her mother experienced the Cultural Revolution, which brought communism to China. And, Jung Chang is the daughter of members of the Communist Elite and was a Red Guard until she was old enough to declare the life, she wanted for herself. Each generation is thrust into a situation she must work through in order to escape that lifestyle. While Chang wasn’t the only one whose family had to survive these social norms and changes, she provides enough details for witnesses, readers, and historians to comprehend for both empathy and compassion. 

When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt(2018) by Kara Cooney

            Everyone is familiar with some of the culture surrounding Ancient Egypt. Pyramids, mummies, pharaohs, papyrus, gods, and curses usually come to mind when thinking about the ancient civilization; and, names such as Rameses, Amenhotep, Tutankhamun, and Khufu come to mind. But, what about the female rulers? Everyone has heard of Nefertiti and Cleopatra, and less are familiar with Hatshepsut and Tawosret. How many people know who Merneith and Neferusobek were? I’ve never heard of the last two until I picked up this book.

            Egyptologist, Kara Cooney, delves into the lives and the reigns of these six remarkable queens who would eventually become pharaohs in their own right. And, how and why their government betrayed them and sought to remove them for posterity. However, history is not so easy to eclipse. While Egypt was very much ahead of its time, it still became victimized to the notions of female rulers as did the rest of the world.

            When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egyptprovides historical facts about each of the pharaohs mentioned within the text. Both the introduction and the epilogue provide answers to those common questions. These queens ruled centuries before the notable female rulers of the last thousand years. In addition, you will wonder whether or not Ancient Egypt was the progressive civilization. 

            The next recommendations are duos. This is because the fictionalized variants are more ubiquitous than the available biographies. Yet, the fiction is noteworthy because they introduce readers (and academics) to whom these people were and what was happening during that era in their country. So, both the fiction and the biographies of these women’s lives will be recommended. 

In the Time of the Butterflies(1994) by Julia Alvarez; followed by Vivas en su jardín (Live in Your Garden)(2009) by Dedé Mirabal

            The Mirabal Sisters were some of the many opponents of General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic during the 1950s. On November 25, 1960, three of the sisters were killed on Trujillo’s orders. In the Time of the Butterfliesis the fictionalized narrative about this family’s courage and resistance against a brutal dictator. And, while Julia Alvarez included suggested reads to learn more about the Mirabal Family and the Dominican Republic, Vivas en su jardínis Dedé Mirabal’s autobiography in which, she mentions her sisters and their political resistance. It is in Spanish, but that shouldn’t prevent one from learning more about these amazing women.

Pope Joan: A Novel(1996) by Donna Woolfolk Cross; followed by Pope Joan: The Indestructible Legend of the Catholic Church’s First and Only Female Pontiff(2017) by Charles River Editors

            For centuries, there have been rumors of the Catholic Church having a female pope. Of course, there is limited information to confirm this due to both the era—the Middle Ages—and efforts by the Vatican to limit any knowledge about this possibility. Pope Joan was believed to have serve as “The Pope” for about one year. A few reports claim that Joan might have disguised herself as a man; and, there are a few reports which claim that Joan was elected Pope as an interim by the Papacy. It is difficult to determine what had happened. Pope Joan: A Novelby Donna Woolfolk Cross is a historical fiction novel which narrates what could have happened to Pope Joan during her life. In terms of an actual biography, so far, Pope Joan: The Indestructible Legend of the Catholic Church’s First and Only Female Pontiff, is the only one I came across that has believable information about Pope Joan. If you know of any actual and reliable titles, then please mention it in the comments below. I would appreciate it greatly. 

            The books on this list are about women you have heard of, but forgotten about, or about women you’ve never heard of before. However, it’s the moments in human history that allowed these women to demonstrate that they were more than what society wanted them to be. Instead, these women presented themselves as equals to their male counterparts to the point where the men either attacked them, or (tried to) erased them. These women survived and prevailed, and we can admire their achievements and be content knowing that we won’t permit them to fall into obscurity for posterity. These women rock!