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. 

Speculative Fiction Books that Kept My Interest in the Genre

Please note the title of this post refers to books! I will write a separate list containing movies, TV shows and video games related to speculative fiction sometime in the future. And, expect that list to consist of “originals,” not just media adaptations of books. Also, these are NOT my favorite speculative fiction books of all-time! I’m not even sure I can make a list without changing it every year; hence why I do an annual list.

            Everyone has a favorite genre of literature (and films, video games, etc.), but has it occurred to you why and how that came to be? Did someone introduce you to the genre? Was it an author’s book—or, several of them—that hooked your passion for the genre? Was it a pop culture moment? In other words, do you remember the moment—or, the story—that got you into your favorite genre(s)? This question can be asked of any format or medium, but I thought about which books got me into speculative fiction and how it influenced my love and my appreciation for the genre. It did take some time to think back on what I’ve read since I was a kid, but I realized that some of the books released in the past decade have been just as influential as the ones I’ve read growing up.

            I’ve managed to compile a list of 10 books/series that influenced my love for the speculative fiction genre. Please know that I listed the books in the chronological order I read them regardless of the book’s publication date. The reasons for this is obvious. I hope you read and enjoy them as much as I did. 

  1. Animorphs by K.A. Applegate

I’m a 90s kid, and there were several book series for kids—The Babysitter’s Club, Goosebumps, etc.—but, I remember when the debut book in this series was released. I was 10 years-old, still in elementary school, and intrigued by the book’s cover: a boy changing from human to animal (a lizard). The story was about a group of friends who are given powers to change into animals by a dying alien in order to fight an invasion against a race of hostile aliens. This sci-fi series was the first book series in which I had to learn how to wait patiently for a book to be written and released when I wanted to devour the next one immediately. At the same time, this series introduced me to the blending of both the science fiction and the paranormal genres. Even though I didn’t know what paranormal was at the time, I knew this was different from other alien media I consumed with an explanation of D.N.A., permanent consequences, and the difficulties in balancing family, school, and saving the world. Animorphs was my first obsessive book series. 

2. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

I’m in 9th grade and one of many students who participated in an optional reading course through our English class. Two of my best friends participated in this course with me. However, the three of us chose different books to read during the second quarter. I can’t remember what one friend chose, but my other friend was upset with us for not selecting The Once and Future King by T.H. White. Why? Well, the description of Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie was more intriguing to me: a boy whose father loses the source of his stories, and he’s a storyteller. The boy, Haroun, goes on a journey to find out what happened to the “source” of the stories. The story is a twist on fairy tale tropes and fantastical elements with rounded characters and lots of humor. It wasn’t until I was reading The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (in 12th grade) that I learned about magic realism and Salman Rushdie’s contribution to the genre. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is one of my favorite books I read for (grade) school. And, before you ask, no I haven’t read The Once and Future King in its entirety, yet. 

3. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

I’m going to say something controversial: Harry Potter is not my favorite (fantasy) series of my childhood. Don’t get me wrong! I love that series and what it’s done for the speculative fiction genre, children’s and YA literature, the popularity of fantasy, and the reading and the writing communities. Yet, there was another series that came out at the same time and introduced me to the blending of fantasy, science and religion. I read The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman after reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, and I found myself enjoying Lyra’s story more than Harry’s. I want to say it’s because the flawed characters were more believable, the aspects of science and philosophy in a fantasy worked with the plot, and the idea of “other worlds” was intriguing to me. I hadn’t read C.S. Lewis’ or Madeline L’Engle’s series yet, so Philip Pullman was my introduction to portal fantasy, and I’ve been obsessed with them since reading His Dark Materials trilogy. I’ve read The Book of Dust already, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the companion trilogy to His Dark Materials; and, I’m excited for Season 2 of the television series, too! 

4. The Modern Faerie Tale Trilogy by Holly Black

I still remember reading Holly Black’s debut novel, Tithe. The story is an urban fantasy about how a teenaged girl realizes she’s been interacting with faeries since she was a child, and what that means for her and her family and her friends. Yes, I read one of Laurell K. Hamilton’s books—her debut novel, Nightseer—so I had a fair idea of what to expect from fae fantasy, but urban fantasy blends the original variants of fae stories with mundane society; and, the fae are NOT nice beings. Fae are not what they are according to Disney movies. They don’t “play fair” and are usually in it for themselves. It makes for an interesting story combining folklore and modernity. I would meet Holly Black at the BookExpo I attended that year, which was my first one; and, I met Cassandra Clare there, too! I read and enjoyed the rest of the trilogy, and Holly Black’s other books, especially The Air of the Folk trilogy. This series was my gateway to reading other books in that genre, especially ones by Seanan McGuire, Ilona Andrews and Amelia Hutchins. 

5. The Twelve Kingdoms by Fuyumi Ono

Yes, there is a fantasy series by the same name by Jeffe Kennedy, but the name of the series is where the similarities end. The 90s saw an expansion of anime series: Pokémon, Gundam Wing, Sailor Moon, etc. Manga and books were being translated and imported to the U.S. The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow was translated and released after I graduated from college, and I was introduced to Asian inspired dark fantasy. The story follows Yoko Nakajima, a high schooler who lives a mundane, yet lonely life. To make matters worse, she stands out due to her red hair—she is the biological daughter of Japanese parents. One day, Yoko is abducted at her school, transported to another world, abandoned and left to fend for herself in a new world. This series introduced me to a fantasy world in which the “traveler” is not welcomed as a “hero” and survival is based on realistic situations. The theme of xenophobia in fantasy is presented in a way that will make you think about what could happen in other fantasy worlds, especially when—SPOILER ALERT—the protagonist chooses to remain in that world instead of returning home, and how and why such a choice is made. So, if there are any fans of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, then you’ll love this series, too. 

6. Monstress by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda

Growing up, I read comics, graphic novels and manga, and many of them were recommended by friends and relatives. In fact, that’s how I learned about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. However, for several years, I didn’t read as many graphic novels as I wanted. I didn’t lose interest, but at the same time, I didn’t know what to read. I did take a course about graphic novels in college, but I took another one when I was in grad school—where I read Watchmen—and learned about the format and its growing influence, especially for the memoir and biography genre. At the same time, two of my friends and classmates introduced me to recent bestsellers and new releases. Not only did I begin to read Joe Hill’s Locke & Key series and Saga by Brian K. Vaughn, but a new series with an eye-catching cover intrigued me: a woman standing in front of a brass door with a matching mechanical arm. Monstress by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda is a dark fantasy in which a young woman searches into her mother’s research and her lost memories as she deals with demons both real and inner. The artwork will engross you into the world both the author and the artist present. While describing the series as a “visual fantasy” isn’t 100% accurate, it is a way to get speculative fiction fans into reading this graphic novel series. 

7. The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

What can I say about this trilogy that hasn’t been said by everyone else who has read it, including myself? This Hugo Award winning series—yes, it swept the Hugos for Best Novel in consecutive years—is a gateway into the future of the speculative fiction genre and the type of stories that can be told withing the genre. N.K. Jemisin not only writes a brilliant science fantasy series, but also incorporates the atrocious practices humanity continues to perform, which forces readers to consider the realities of human society and its future. For me, this series introduced me to modern speculative fiction and the new set of expectations that it brought to the entire community! Jemisin’s contemporaries: Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson, Jesmyn Ward, Tochi Onyebuchi, P. Djèlí Clark, Marlon James, Rivers Solomon, etc.—all have taken familiar tropes of the genre and presented readers with new methods of telling and writing these stories. If you haven’t done so already, then go and read this amazing trilogy!

8. Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden

This is not the first folklore retelling I’ve read, but it’s one of the most beautiful written ones I’ve come across; and, it brings a new appreciation for the season of winter. This series follows Vasya as she grows from child to adolescent to adult in a patriarchal society during a transition where “old traditions” are fading and being replaced with a “new” religion. Vasya fights to maintain the old traditions while Russian society undergoes several changes. Folklore is the cultural and the societal traditions that are passed along from generation to generation through a web of communication; and, history plays a role in folklore as well. Katherine Arden presents a balance amongst folklore, history and fantasy in this trilogy. This series will remind speculative fiction fans of the beauty within the genre and how it can remain from beginning to end. 

9. Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

While this is the first book in The Metamorphosis series—it’s the only one translated into English so far—it’s a great and mind-blowing introduction into the metaphysical genre. Not to mention, it takes the trope of the “magic school” and provides a more realistic, yet twisted story of what could occur at such a place. This story will make you think of Alan Moore and your concept of reality. In addition, you’ll start to think of these “magic schools” as drafts instead of opportunities. Other genres in speculative fiction has readers asking questions about the world around them, but metaphysical fiction has readers question the reality of their existence. The difference is it seems that a limited population experiences the metaphysical compared to fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, magic realism, etc. This series and genre will make you question everything!

10. The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan

Although I’ve heard enough about Joe Abercrombie, Peter McLean, John Gwynne, and Anna Smith Spark enough to buy their books, it was Gareth Hanrahan’s debut novel, The Gutter Prayer, which introduced me to the grimdark subgenre. Yes, I’m a reader and a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, but to me that series is more of a historical low-fantasy series rather than straight grimdark (I could be wrong about that). This book introduced me to characters who are all “gray” with “reasonable” motivations who strive towards those goals as their lives and the world fall to pieces. As grim, dark and sad as the characters and their stories are, it continues with the knowledge that life goes one no matter how many people die and are resurrected and die again. This book and its contemporaries represent the harsh side of a fantasy world that reflect ours. 

So, there is my list of speculative fiction books that kept my interest in the genre since childhood. While my list of all-time favorite speculative fiction books continue to change over and over, this list of books influenced my love and my appreciation of this genre of literature. And, from my perspective, I appreciate the influence and the bridging from one book or series to another with a similar genre structure. Which books got you into this genre? Have you read any or all of my picks or any books by the authors mentioned in this post? Comment below or send me a link to your online response.