I wasn’t expecting much from The Once and Future Witches; I only gave The Factory Witches of Lowell three stars, and this seemed like such a similar idea that I was surprised book club would add it to our list when we’d already experienced exactly this subgenre. I was absolutely wrong, The Once and Future Witches is up there with The Goblin Emperor and An Accident of Stars as one of the best books we’ve read.
Despite being a lover of fantasy novels, magic systems aren’t that important to me. The distinctions between hard and soft, rules-light and rules-heavy rarely influence how I feel about a book. But I absolutely loved what Alix E Harrow did with the magic in The Once and Future Witches, because it’s all based in reality, but given a clever and literary twist. Spells are hidden in nursery rhymes and stories, and so many of them begin with familiar words. Similarly, Alix E Harrow takes familiar concepts and weaves them into her world in a way that delighted and surprised me every time.
(Sometimes she can still see the walls of her room at St Hale’s: perfect ivory, closing like teeth around her. She keeps such things locked safe inside parentheses, like her mother taught her.)The Once and Future Witches, Alix E Harrow
In a similar way, the prose was full of clever twists and references and beautiful sentences that I loved. While the style seems simple, it’s also very clever, building in references and allusions that will become more important later. I’m sure The Once and Future Witches would be a joy to reread!
While the magic reminded me of Chocolat, the world-building shows a greater divergence from reality, something more akin to Dread Nation. I loved that so many of the significant historical and mythological figures were female versions of those found in our world: Alexandra Pope, Queen Midas, to name just two. It made me wonder if reading this feels a little like being a man in our world, where so many important figures affirm your gender. The Once and Future Witches is an explicitly feminist book, though Alix E Harrow does flesh out positive male characters just as well.
Beatrice rubs her thumb along the spine of her notebook, stuffed full of her most private thoughts and theories, her wildest suppositions and most dangerous inquiries. Her own heart, sewn and bound.The Once and Future Witches, Alix E Harrow
Which brings me on to the characters, who I adored. Even though the Eastwood Sisters, and many of the others, were built on archetypes, they were incredibly well-drawn and developed. Of course, as a reader and reviewer of books, not to mention a notebook enthusiast, I loved (Beatrice) Bella the librarian and note-keeper, but Agnes’ story was just as compelling, maybe even more so. To round out the three witches, I should also say that I cried harder in Juniper’s chapters than I think I have in any book I’ve read for book club. The ending of The Once and Future Witches is powerful and deeply sad, but not a total tragedy.
Or maybe they won’t tell our story at all, because it isn’t finished yet. Maybe we’re just the very beginning, and all the fuss and mess we made was nothing but the first strike of the flint, the first shower of sparks.The Once and Future Witches, Alix E Harrow
There’s still no such things as witches.
But there will be.
I have absolutely nothing bad to say, which doesn’t happen often. And for once, I haven’t struggled to articulate all the things I loved about The Once and Future Witches. Fingers crossed I’m just as able to string my thoughts together at book club.