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. 

Why You Need to Read: “The Bear and the Nightingale”

Winternight Trilogy, #1: The Bear and the Nightingale

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 10, 2017

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Folklore/Magic Realism/Coming-of-Age

            Vasya’s head hurt with thinking. If the domovoi wasn’t real, then what about the others? The vodyanoy in the river, the twig-man in the trees? The rusalka, the polevik, the dvorovoi? Had she imagined them all? Was she mad? (11: Domovoi).

            Have you ever wondered how or what got you into reading a book or a book series? Oftentimes, we read books due to their popularity or recommendations from other readers. Then, there are times when our curiosity drives us to read a book. For example, the first edition of the U.S. print has a woman standing in front of a cabin in the woods on a snowy night. Add the book’s description and the fact that the ebook was on sale, and you have the short version of how I got into reading The Bear and the Nightingale, the first book in the Winternight Trilogy, and the debut novel by Katherine Arden. 

            The story begins before the protagonist, Vasya, is born. Marina Ivanovna is the wife of Pyotr Vladimirovich, a great lord or a boyar, and they live in the North (of Russia) at the edge of the forest in a town called Lesnaya Zemlya. Marina is the daughter of the last Grand Prince of Moscow, and her mother was rumored to be a swan-maiden who captured the prince’s attention. Yet, due to the fear of the Church, Marina married off to a boyar away from Moscow, where she bore her husband many children. When her youngest, Vasilisa was born, she died, but Marina always knew that Vasya would have the same “Gift” her mother had. Vasya, the youngest of five children, is raised by her father, her nurse—Dunya—and, her siblings: Alyosha, Olga, Sasha and Kolya. Vasya grows into a willful child to the distress of her family. When Vasya is about 5 or 6 years-old, her father travels to Moscow in search of a new wife and he brings his sons with him. By the time the family returns, Anna Ivanovna is with them. Later on, Sasha and Olga will leave Lesnaya Zemlya for Moscow in order to fulfill their duties. Meanwhile, both Vasya and Anna are able to see beings, or chyerti, who occupy the house, the lake, the forest, etc. Anna believes them to be demons, while Vasya talks to them, follows their instructions, and learns from them. At the same time, Father Konstantin Nikonovich—a young and beautiful priest whose talent for painting icons has led to him having a huge following of worshippers—has been sent to Lesnaya Zemlya to replace the priest there that died. As young as she is, Vasya’s antagonists are adults: her stepmother and the new priest, adults who envy and admire Vasya. All of the characters are people who watch Vasya grow from child to adolescent in Russia during a time when Christianity was becoming the dominant religion and when women—especially high-born ones—were expected to follow strict societal guidelines. Vasya, unknowingly, fights these societal expectations and maneuvers her way through them as she approaches adolescence (which, was considered to be adulthood at that time). This puts her at odds with her stepmother and the priest, while becoming allies with the chyerti, fae folk from Russian folklore. 

            The plot in this book sees the upbringing of Vasya and her life in the Russian countryside. Given the circumstances of her existence and her birth, Vasya always had the attention of her family, even if it were for the wrong reasons. Vasya’s father, nurse and siblings see Vasya as a reminder of her mother and her grandmother (based on rumors and gossip). Both Anna and Father Konstantin see Vasya as an individual who goes against the “Rites of the Church,” and seek to “save her soul.” Vasya is an independent girl who communicates with the chyerti (of the old religion) and becomes their ally. Vasya learns the old magic away from the capital, which allows her to carry on without scrutiny. Yet, it seems only Dunya knows how special Vasya is to the chyerti. There are three subplots in this novel. The first is the animosity Anna and Father Konstantin have towards Vasya. Vasya is the willful and carefree daughter of a boyar who listens to the old magic of the chyerti, while her stepmother and the priest try and fail to bring her to heel. The second subplot involves the struggle Russia is dealing with involving pagan versus Christianity amongst the rulers. War is coming, but it is difficult to say who Russia’s adversaries will be. The third subplot follows Vasya’s “Gifts” and what that means for her. Everyone else—her family, the chyerti, her nurse, the priest—seem to know how important Vasya is to the world and their survival, except for Vasya. And, there are powerful beings who are interested in her as well. 

            The narrative in The Bear and the Nightingale is one of an erziehungsroman, or a novel of upbringing. This is different from an entwicklungsroman (“a novel of—a child’s—character development”) or a bildungsroman (“a coming of age” story) in that the narration follows the protagonist from childhood and focuses on their early life and upbringing. Thus, the sequence of the novel is set in the time of Vasya’s birth to childhood to early adolescence while learning of her family and her upbringing. There are multiple points-of-view and that’s because of the 3rd-person omniscient P.O.V., which allows the reader(s) to know what all of the characters—including the protagonist—are thinking and what their motivations are throughout the story. In addition, the streams-of-consciousness of the characters match the present time sequence of the story. So, not only are all the narrators/characters reliable narrators, but also are understandable because readers are aware of their emotions and their motivations. All of these elements of the narrative make it easy to follow. 

            The style Katherine Arden uses for her debut novel blends folklore and history to present a historical fantasy with elements of Russian folklore. The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book in a trilogy based on the story of Vasilisa the Beautiful. At the same time, the historical context allows for the story to be “more believable,” so that terminology and the word choice used throughout the narrative embellishes the story and presents the reality within the fiction and demonstrates the culture of Russia’s past. The mood in this novel is dominance. Who has control of whom? Who is the dominant one in a household, in a region, in a kingdom? Is there a dominant religion? The tone in the novel is rebellion. Vasya is not the only character who rebels against societal expectations set upon her. Then again, the other characters and the reader(s) witness what happens to those who allow others to make choices for them. Please note: the glossary will help with understanding the context of the words and the terms used throughout the novel. 

            The appeal for The Bear and the Nightingale have been positive. It’s hard to believe that this is the author’s debut novel. Katherine Arden was even nominated for the John W. Campbell Award—now called, the Astounding Award for Best New Writer—which is announced during the Hugo Awards. The popularity of this book will have readers thinking of authors such as Madeline Miller and Marion Zimmer Bradley for retelling stories of myths, legends and fairy tales. This book does have lasting appeal and it is a great addition to the speculative fiction canon. Fans of Spinning Silver, Gods of Jade and Shadow, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, The Poppy War, Empire of Sand, and The City of Brass will enjoy this book the most. The rest of the trilogy—The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch—are worth reading as well. 

            The Bear and the Nightingale is a brilliant debut novel that introduces many readers to Russian folklore through the historical world-building and the rounded characters. The story is the beginning of Vasya’s life and her adventures, and all of the elements of fairy tales of older variants (i.e. “the price of deals”) are found within this book as well. This book will make readers crave winter and snow, and will know the beauty and the magic found in one’s backyard. The old magic has not been forgotten. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!! 

Why You Need to Read: “The Priory of the Orange Tree”

The Priory of the Orange Tree

By: Samantha Shannon                                    Audiobook: 25 hours 52 minutes

Published: February 26, 2019                          Narrated by: Liyah Summers

Genre: Epic Fantasy

            A low growl rolled through Nayimathun. She spoke as if to herself. “He is stirring. The shadow lies heavy on the West,” (Chapter 25, East).

            Avid readers—especially those who read history, biographies and memoirs, and speculative fiction—do not fear tackling “long” books. In fact, many readers get upset when a long book is about to come to an end. Then, there are “long” books in which readers ask themselves, “how am I going to get through this?” This is what I asked myself when I heard about The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. This 800+ page book was declared “one of the Best of 2019,” and other readers who have managed to finish the book had nothing but positive things to say about it. First, I borrowed the standalone novel from my library and started to read it. However, I knew I would need more than 2 weeks to read this book (library policy). So, I bought the eBook—when it was on sale—and I kept reading. Yet, I felt I wasn’t reading it at my usual pace. So then, I bought the audiobook and started listening to it from the beginning. It took me two months, but I enjoyed every minute of it! And, I bought the printed edition because I wanted my own hardcopy edition of the book (and it was half off)! I don’t regret purchasing these editions of this novel! The Priory of the Orange Tree is Samantha Shannon’s epic fantasy novel about female leaders, dragons, conspiracies—both political and historical—imminent danger, and identity. Don’t allow the length of the story to intimidate you, this epic tale details everything that occurs throughout this fantasy adventure!

            Like most epic fantasies, there are several characters who are part of the story and play their roles. Yet, there are three protagonists who provide both the point-of-view and the connections both to the events and to several other main characters throughout the narrative. First, there is Tané, a poor orphan who is given the rare opportunity to train as a dragonrider. Overcoming the rigorous training and her destitute status, Tané is about to Test to become a dragonrider for her island home in the East. However, on the night before the Passage, an outsider washes on to the beach. Fearing that the outsider will cause a delay of the Tests—outsiders are quarantined in order to prevent any illnesses from spreading into the population— Tané hides the outsider at the home of a resident who is also not from the island. This leads to the second protagonist, Doctor Niclays Roos (a male) who resides in the East in exile after failing to please the Queen in the West. This Queen in the West, Sabran the Ninth of House Berethnet, has remained unwed since her coronation. This is a dilemma because one of her roles as queen is to bear a daughter in order to protect her kingdom from an ancient evil. However, Queen Sabran’s time consists of avoiding assassination attempts and suffering from vivid nightmares. But, she has allies. One of them is the third protagonist, Ead Duryan—one of the ladies-in-waiting to the Queen—who is really a member of a hidden society of mages whose mission centers around protecting the royal bloodline of House Berethnet, and the entire world, from Armageddon. These protagonists are rounded—they have strengths and weaknesses, they are selfish and sympathetic, they are motivated, and they are survivors—which make them believable to the readers as their narratives are presented to them. These protagonists are neither royalty nor the elite social class, which is relevant because they are able to maneuver through their societies with access to the knowledge and the information given to them by the upper class. At the same time, these protagonists are able to uncover the truth of the past for themselves and of their societies and the world they live in. And, it’s up to them to try and save it. Yet, out of the three protagonists, it is both Tané and Ead Duryan who demonstrate the most character development. Even though both women make mistakes and lose the trust of their friends and allies, they hold on to their convictions that danger is coming. Meanwhile, Doctor Niclays Roos decides to start up the same research that led to his exile. He doesn’t have anything to lose, but his experience is essential to the plot. Although, the band of characters make it difficult to keep track of at times, they appear and are mentioned enough for readers to recall who they are and their relationships to the protagonists and the other main characters. 

            The plot—similar to other fantasy and/or adventure tales—involves prophecies, magic and saving the world. About 1,000 years ago, heroes of the world defeated and sealed an ancient threat. However, the seal would break after a thousand years, so the heroes and the armies left and established new kingdoms—and secret orders—in order to prepare for the return of that ancient threat. Unfortunately, history becomes myth, and religion and legend with all sources of information becomes lost or altered. The story and the plot take place just as the 1,000 years are up, and the descendants are searching for a way to defeat the threat before it emerges. The subplots are how each of the four continents are preparing for Armageddon. Obviously, many do not believe or know that this event is about to occur. It takes time for the plot to develop because all of the subplots—from the introductions of the characters, the settings and the conflicts to the character development and the world-building—must develop alongside the plot. This is a slow, but an appropriate rate for the plots and the subplots to develop and to converge because this is a standalone novel. After the subplots have developed—not resolved—then the plot continues to develop on its own and at its own pace. 

            The narrative is told in present time and from the P.O.V.s of the protagonists. Each of the six parts of this story presents the stream-of-consciousness of Tané, Doctor Roos and Ead. This allows readers to comprehend the motives, the culture and the decisions they make throughout the story. Given that the protagonists have their desires and the events are happening in real-time, each part of the narrative is reliable because the revelations and the reactions are believable and the situations the characters find themselves in are because of the decisions and the demeanors of the characters. The narrative is easy to follow because of the step-by-step action and reaction narration presented to the readers. 

            The style Samantha Shannon uses for this novel is a combination of fantasy tropes, history, literature and folklore. In other words, The Priory of the Orange Tree is a reimagination of true events and culture. History and folklore such as Christianity, the Amazons, and dragons were influences for this novel. Historical moments and the literature that were written—the Crusades and stories such as The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser and The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley—are also found within the pages of the novel. The style the author uses for this story is not new; in fact, folklore and religion are often retellings of both history and culture. However, readers become aware of this while reading the story, but would they ever consider a similar possibility that the same thing could be possible with our life and culture? The mood of the novel is foreboding and callowness. The tone is what to do and how to handle information based on what actually took place and how the truth can remain hidden within all of the stories, the mysteries, and the lies for hundreds of years. The tone and the mood work in tandem, but this plot device is revealed to the readers through a handful of characters who know the (actual) truth. This reflects reality because the truth of events is revealed to a select few of people (typically) and that is only when the truth surfaces (not always).

            The appeal of this novel have been noteworthy. The Priory of the Orange Tree was labeled “one of the Best Fantasy Books of 2019,” by numerous critics and fans of epic fantasy written by Jacqueline Carey and Brandon Sanderson or any standalone fantasy story will enjoy this book the most. As for the narration of the audiobook, Liyah Summers did a great job voicing all of the characters—male and female—without there being any confusion as to which character was speaking and the accents used for each dialect of speech. Her pacing of the narration worked for both the length of the novel and the given size of the world as hinted from the numerous locations. Liyah Summers was a great choice for this large narration and its large assembly of characters. 

            The Priory of the Orange Tree is an ambitious story of strong female characters, dragons and wyverns, magic, conspiracies, lost histories, and the end-of-the-world. Anyone who is familiar with epic fantasy stories should read this book; and, fans of fantasy and speculative fiction should not be daunted by the size of the book, but know that the story within it contains a world with rich characters whose lives are about to become interconnected for reasons lost to their histories. Not only will readers be satisfied with the narration up to the end, but also feel a sense of accomplishment for completing this amazing and adventurous fantasy story. Readers will find the time and a way to read this book as I did.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!