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: “In An Absent Dream”

Wayward Children, #4: In An Absent Dream

By: Seanan McGuire

Published: January 8, 2019

Genre: Fantasy

            This, then, was Katherine Victoria Lundy: pretty and patient and practical. Not lonely, because she had never really considered any way of being other than alone. Not gregarious, nor sullen, but somewhere in the middle, happy to speak when spoken to, happy also to carry on in silence, keeping her thoughts tucked quietly away. She was ordinary. She was remarkable, (1: A Very Ordinary Garden). 

            We’ve all asked the question: ‘How did ‘x’ come to be in existence?’ In our world, we have history lessons and oral tradition to teach us about historic moments and events, and changes in technology. In other worlds—in works of fiction—the audience receives the history as the narration continues explaining the scenario, the characters’ backstories, and—in the case of speculative fiction—how the world came to be. Throughout the Wayward Children series, readers have learned about the various worlds the travelers visited, and how Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children is a haven for these travelers. It makes you wonder how those who returned to our world readjusted in society before these schools existed. In An Absent Dream, the fourth book in the series, provides one infamous case.

            The protagonist in this story is Lundy, whom we met in Every Heart A Doorway. Everyone already knows how her life ends, but we’re given a look into her life—both with her family and in the Goblin Market. Katherine Victoria Lundy is the middle child in her family’s household. She is 6-years-old at the beginning of the story. She has an older brother, Daniel, who is 6 years her senior; and, her mother is pregnant with her 3rd child, which will be Lundy’s younger sister, Diana. However, Lundy isn’t Lundy yet, she is Katherine; it’s her birthday, and none of Katherine’s classmates are celebrating with her. The reason for this is because Katherine’s father is the principal at the school, which goes unnoticed by both parents. For another 2 years, Katherine is a model student, which isolates her even more. One day, 8-year-old Katherine is walking home from school when she finds a Door with the words: BE SURE. Well, Katherine is sure and she enters the world of the Goblin Market. There, Katherine meets “the Archivist,” who explains the rules and the ways of the Goblin Market; and, “Moon,” a girl around Katherine’s age who is a resident at the Goblin Market, who has trouble following the rules. The first thing Katherine learns there is NOT to use her actual name, but either an attribute or a family name. Thus, Katherine chooses to go by her last name, Lundy; and, Lundy is told she is not the 1st visitor to go by that name. Throughout her “trips” to the Goblin Market, Lundy grows into the person she was denied to be in her world (the story starts in 1962). Meanwhile, Lundy’s family cannot understand why she would choose to be anywhere else but with them, especially Lundy’s father. So, what does Lundy’s family do to her? They find ways to keep her from leaving them, even succumbing to enact guilt. This move begins a rift in Lundy as she tries to figure out a way to find “fair value” before the curfew.   

            The plot is a look back into Lundy’s early life—who can be viewed as a “tragic” character—and her childhood and her time in the Goblin Market. This is an intriguing view into how a child survives in “another world” with minimal adult guidance, which could be one of the actual dilemmas Lundy had to deal with as well, while remaining divided on which Home was her real one. The sad thing is Lundy was thriving in the Goblin Market for reasons her family was too blind to notice. There are 2 subplots and they are essential to the plot (and, the entire series). The first subplot regards the concept and the importance of the rules in each world. Throughout the series, readers learn which students haven’t returned Home due to the rules they broke, but there wasn’t too much context in their stories—except for Kade. Lundy is the first character who has to admit her choices to break the rules led to her permanent punishment (unlike Jill). The second subplot presents how and why schools like Eleanor West’s—remember, there are several others throughout our world—became the much-needed havens and fellowships travelers, especially children, never knew they needed. Lundy knew of 2 other travelers: Moon, who was already a permanent citizen of the Goblin Market; and, Franklin Lundy, Lundy’s father, who does everything in his power to stop his daughter from returning to the Goblin Market. Neither friend nor parent can give the guidance Lundy needs so badly. It makes you wonder what could have been if a school existed during Lundy’s childhood. It is obvious both subplots are necessary for the plot to develop throughout the story.

            The narrative in this story is told from Lundy’s point-of-view, but in 3rd person omniscient. This is because there are moments when the P.O.V. shifts away from Lundy—usually to her father—in order to fill in the smaller details of the story. The sequence is broken down into the events leading up to Lundy’s “trips” to the Goblin Market, particularly her first 3 visits. Each visit leads Lundy to staying at the Goblin Market for longer periods of time. However, it is the visits before the curfew, which receives the most attention. Lundy’s “trips” become more frequent, but for shorter visits, almost like they match Lundy’s hesitation instead of her heart. The narrative is a look back at the past, so it is NOT a flashback. This means most of the narration is told from Lundy’s stream-of-consciousness. And, because the narration leads to the end readers know is coming, Lundy is a reliable narrator.

            The style Seanan McGuire uses in In An Absent Dream is an intriguing one. The concept of the Goblin Market comes from the narrative poem of the same name by Christina Rossetti. The poem is about 2 sisters who meet goblins by the river encouraging all to “Come buy, come buy.” The synopsis of the poem is: one sister eats the fruit, while the other one does not. As time passes, the sister who ate the fruit begins to age unnaturally. This causes the other sister to go and buy some of the fruit to save her. The sister resists the temptation to eat the fruit, which saves her sister’s life. It is obvious the author took this children’s poem and retold it with the same dilemmas and the same morals. Seanan McGuire’s retelling of Goblin Market is easier to comprehend, but is just as much of a cautionary tale as the original poem. The mood in this story is the discord one’s desires can lead to within the individual, which is brought on by those closest to them. Once again, the illustrations done by Rovina Cai bring out the beauty in a world very few people know exist. 

            The appeal for In An Absent Dream have been positive. Not only was it nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novella in 2020, but also it is one of the highest rated books in the Wayward Children series by readers on Goodreads and on other social media and (book) retail websites. This novella is an excellent addition to both the book series and the fantasy canon. I should mention that anyone who did enjoy this book because of the world of the Goblin Market should read both Goblin Market by Christina Rosetti and The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner. The latter is a historical fantasy novel with allusions to Goblin Market. After reading those, fans can move on to the next book in the series, Come Tumbling Down

            In An Absent Dream is a story so beautiful and tragic readers will be torn between wanting it to be real and wanting it to be a dream. This is my favorite book in the series next to Every Heart A Doorway. There are several reasons for this: the believable characters, the beauty of the Goblin Market, the split between family and where you belong, and the heart-wrenching end everyone knows is coming but doesn’t want it to happen. Not to mention, the reason and the importance of schools like Eleanor West’s for travelers in similar scenarios. Now, readers have a complete understanding of what these children really need: the desire to choose without any guilt. 

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