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 Deep”

The Deep

By: Rivers Solomon; with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

Published: November 5, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Science Fiction/Folklore/Historical Fantasy

            “Our mothers were pregnant two-legs thrown overboard while crossing the ocean on slave ships. We were born breathing water as we did in the womb. We built our home on the sea floor, unaware of the two-legged surface dwellers,” she said. In general, Yetu didn’t tell the Remembrance. She made her people experience it as it happened in the minds of various wajinru who lived it, (Chapter 3). 

            Whether or not the majority of the world wants to admit it, 2019 marks 400 years since the beginning of the African Slave Trade. The first ships holding captive Africans made its voyage to the Americas in order to exploit the resources in those continents. For over 200 years, Africans—men, women and children—were abducted from their homes and families and shipped overseas and sold into slavery. The voyage overseas to the Americas were treacherous due to the conditions abroad the ships and the travel itself. The captives were not only abused, starved and raped, but also were subjected to overcrowded conditions with little to no air circulation. Thus, illness was common throughout these voyages and the ships suffered from the weight of all the people on board. One of the ways the crew resolved the issue of illness and capacity was to throw these terrified people overboard. Even those who weren’t sick (or pregnant) were tied up and thrown into the ocean; and, they were often chained together so none of them could attempt to escape and swim away. Although the imperialist nations continue to gloss over this inhumane era of our history, there is enough testimony and evidence to verify everything about the African Slave Trade as valid. 

            The Deep by Rivers Solomon incorporates this history alongside folklore and culture to tell a story of how and why it is essential to recall history no matter how traumatic it is and to share it with others. At the same time, the idea of maintaining history, culture and identity, and the consequences of those losses are echoed throughout the narrative. In African culture, a community’s historian and storyteller is given the title: griot. The griot is responsible for maintaining all of the stories and the events of that one community. And, it is seen as one of the highest honored positions an individual can train for and be assigned within their community. The practice of there being only one historian and/or griot per group of people is a cautionary tale that will remind readers of The Giver by Lois Lowry.  

            The protagonist is Yetu. She is 35 years-old and she has been her wajinru’s “historian,” or griot, since she was 14. Yetu was chosen to be her people’s historian by the previous one. The historian maintains the entire history of the wajinru (“chorus of the deep”) from when the first babe of the captured Africans were born and survived in the depths of the ocean. Due to the trauma of the first wajinru, one of them is chosen to maintain all of the memories of all of the wajinru so that everyone else can strive and live without those memories weighing them down. Every year, an event known as “The Remembrance” occurs, which involves the historian releasing the memories of the wajinru’s past so they can remember their origins, briefly. Throughout the rest of the year, the historian maintains those memories. Yetu was very young when she was chosen to be the current historian, and she’s found the role to be nothing but a burden. From the perspective of the other wajinru—including Yetu’s mother, Amaba—Yetu neglects some of her responsibilities as historian such as preparing for the Remembrance. What they don’t know is that Yetu holds the memories of ALL of the wajinru—past and present—in her mind, and she remembers EVERYTHING. Most wajinru, including Amaba, forget most things after a short time period. Yetu cannot do that and she often loses herself to the fragments of the memories. After 20 years, Yetu forgets to eat and to sleep, and she’s lost herself to the memories more often than she can remember. Lacking a support system from her people, Yetu performs the Remembrance. However, before she is to reclaim the memories for another year, Yetu flees from the other wajinru and the memories. 

            Once Yetu cannot swim anymore, she finds herself near a small seaside town. There Yetu meets humans who help her survive as she recovers from her flight. She is able to communicate with them because some of the memories of the wajinru are still within her. Yetu befriends Oori, a human who is the sole survivor of a disaster that destroyed her home and killed her entire community. The two females bond over being outcasts and being the historian responsible for ensuring that the history and the legacy of their people do not fade into obscurity, and both women are dealing with their burden differently. Yetu’s mind contains the memories of her tribe, until recently; and, Oori is the last of her people and she doesn’t know what she can do to ensure that her people’s legacy doesn’t become extinct. It is this revelation that makes Yetu aware of how essential her role to her people is and why knowing one’s history, culture and origins is important for survival. From there, Yetu is able to make a compromise between her role and its burden. Then, Yetu recreates the role of historian for posterity. 

            Throughout the narrative, readers experience Yetu’s immaturity and trauma as a historian. It is from Yetu’s point-of-view and stream-of-consciousness that readers experience Yetu’s moments of post-traumatic stress disorder—flashbacks, insomnia, anxiety, self-destructive behavior, withdrawal, etc.,—remind readers that moments of the past are experiences of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Yetu is able to accept her role and admit her mistake, and while some readers might wonder whether or not she has grown more as an individual, they need to be reminded that no one recovers from P.T.S.D. overnight. The use of flashbacks enhance the narrative more towards African history and Yetu’s stream-of-consciousness determines the pace of the story and make Yetu out to be a reliable narrator. 

            The style Rivers Solomon uses for The Deep illustrates the balance between the burden and the importance of one’s history and the dangers of limiting that knowledge to one individual. The mood in this novella is the loneliness and the isolation one can feel even if they are surrounded by family and members of their community. The tone in this story is the responsibility of who maintains the history and the culture of one group and why it should be shared and not limited to one individual. Knowing the past is as important as living in the present for the future.

            The Deep will appeal to all fans of science fiction, fantasy and alternative history. Historians will appreciate the incorporation of facts and how events of the past continue to haunt the present. Folklorists will appreciate how storytellers are regarded and admired for their desire and their ability to pass down culture and information for longevity. The hype surrounding this book was huge and that is partly because the audiobook is narrated by Daveed Diggs. The Deep can be reread and included in the speculative fiction canon.  

            The Deep is a heartbreaking story about history, memory and enduring hardship and responsibility. If one has not read any book by the author, then they can and should start with this novella. This story goes to show how some song lyrics, history and desire can come together to tell a believable tale. The Deep will have you believing in mermaids all over again! 

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