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: “Tower of Mud and Straw”

Tower of Mud and Straw

By: Yaroslav Barsukov

Published: February 21, 2021

Genre: Fantasy

            The tower took the length of the world—only it was an alien world, replicating itself over and over as it climbed to a distinct, ghostly gap into the clouds. Or did he stare down a well? (Part I. The Duchy. 5).

            Critics have an interesting job. They review a genre of media—books, films, video games, etc.—and they offer their thoughts and opinions on each one for the public to have a perceived notion before experiencing it for themselves. While it sounds like an ideal job, many do not know critics are expected to review the “poor” and/or the “bad” works as well. Not to mention, the amount to review never seems to decrease. And yet, critics continue to do it because they enjoy it. So, what happens when a request is sent to them from the creator directly? One of two things: either the request is granted, or it gets shuffled into the pile until further notice. In the case of Yaroslav Barsukov, the former happened and I read his novella, Tower of Mud and Straw, a fantasy story that pays homage to familiar tropes while presenting his twists to his readers.

            The protagonist in this story is Shea Ashcroft, the former Minister of Internal Affairs and the former councilor to Queen Daelyn. Shea was stripped of his position after he refused a direct order and is sent to Owenbeg—the kingdom’s border—as the new “intendant” to oversee the construction of a massive tower. Shea, who knows this is a combination of a test and a punishment, arrives to learn about the tower’s construction or lack thereof. Once Shea observes the tower, he learns a truth which triggers a series of traumatic events from his past. Suddenly, Shea is torn between his role and his status, and his knowledge about the potential consequences surrounding the Tower’s completion. Shea demands that the Duke halts the Tower’s construction, which goes against Brielle’s—the Chief Engineer—goals of seeing the Tower completed in record time. Patrick is the Duke’s Military Counselor who is searching for whoever is sabotaging the Tower’s construction. Then, there is Aidan, a man who is obsessed with the Tower’s completion no matter what the cost is so that he can see it through. And, there are 2 women named Lena. The first Lena is the Duke’s Counselor of Arts, and the Duke’s lover. The second Lena is Shea’s (twin?) sister whose been dead for several years. All of these characters forces Shea to confront both his traumas and his fears as he chooses to do what is right instead of his duty.

            The plot in this story revolves around the construction of the Tower. The queen has ordered the airship tower to be built for society and for her legacy. However, Shea discovers that the Tower is being built faster than possible. This is because Brielle has been using Drakiri devices—which Shea’s sister called “tulips”—in order to build the Tower to massive size and expectations. As he processes this information, Shea learns from Patrick that there have been sabotage attempts on the Tower. Shea believes it is the Drakiri devices and demands to have them removed. But, Patrick believes there is a more “primitive” attempt to stop the Tower’s construction. There are 3 subplots in this story. The first subplot focuses on Shea’s new responsibilities and the consequences of not seeing them through—2 men attempt to assassinate him for opposing reasons. The second subplot surrounds the legends of the “Mimic” Tower, which are told to him by Lena—the Duke’s lover—who is part Drakiri and is familiar with the culture and the technology of her ancestors. The third subplot delves into Shea’s past, especially his sister, Lena, what led to her death, and why he ignored all of the signs which led him to make a decision with lethal consequences. Not only do all of these subplots connect to the plot related to the Tower’s construction, but also as to why Shea Ashcroft makes the choices he does throughout the story knowing the outcome won’t change. 

            The narrative is told from Shea’ point-of-view. However, the sequences are presented using different narrations. Most of the narrative is told in 3rd-person limited narrative, meaning readers know what is happening to Shea, but any inner monologues or thoughts are presented in 1st-person narrative. This change in narration illustrates the inner conflicts Shea deals with throughout the story, and these moments of streams-of-consciousness not only present Shea as a reliable narrator, but also presents the conflicts and the protagonist as relatable. What does it take to make a “good” decision? The protagonist’s flashbacks throughout the narrative are written so that they are easy to follow along as well. 

            The style Yaroslav Barsukov uses in Tower of Mud and Straw is a fantasy story with a steampunk setting and elements of folklore which is part political thriller and part cautionary tale. The language used by the author focuses on the “political” aspects found within the world-building as well as the culture of the “immigrants” and their “contribution” to the society they reside in. What happens when more emphasis is placed on the benefits of an unknown technology instead of its origins? And, what happens when “stories” are no longer “just stories”? And, when every side wants you dead, how will you “go out”? The mood in this novella is eerie. There is an unnatural state in the atmosphere, which is brought on by the Tower, but it seems most of the denizens decide to ignore it and say that it’s people and NOT the Unknown who are bringing this change in the atmosphere. The tone in this story is revelation. What happens when there is truth to legends, and they are linked to a personal tragedy? What would you do?

            The appeal for Tower of Mud and Straw have been and will be positive. I received an eARC from the author, and I strongly recommend it. This book will be released through an independent publisher, so it won’t receive the same marketing as books from larger publishers, but I’m a bookblogger who is recommending that you read it. And, it seems that other early readers have enjoyed it as well. This story is a great addition to the fantasy canon, and its lasting appeal will be due to its cult following. This story can and will be re-read because of the story’s structure and format. Each part of the story and the protagonist’s backstory are essential to the story—you can’t skip over anything! And, while one of the final scenes in the story seems “overdone,” it works with the question readers will have by the time they read the last sentence.

            Tower of Mud and Straw is a story full of themes and tropes presented in a way that makes for an incredible story. Yaroslav Barsukov is an author who seems to have more stories ready to give to readers than he is letting on. Until we get those stories, we’ll have to settle for this one about politics, unknown technology, folklore and vertigo. Anyone who is looking for an intriguing story written by an indie author should read this one.

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5).