The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow — New Review, Bookclub Edition

Cover: bookshop.org

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.
There’s still no such things as witches.
But there will be.

The Once and Future Witches, Alix E Harrow

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.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Scottish Traditional Tales edited by A.J. Bruford and D.A. MacDonald — New Review

Scottish Traditional Tales was a gift from my Auntie Carol, who I mentioned in my Rob Roy review. Three of my grandparents were Scottish, so although I’ve never lived there, I have an interest in the songs and stories. I dove into Scottish Traditional Tales without a very clear idea of what I would find. And what a wild ride it turned out to be!

‘That cannot be,’ said the king, and he went to bed, and he ate not a bite, and he drank not a drop: and if the day came early, the king rose earlier than that, and went to the hill to hunt.

Lasair Gheug, the King of Ireland’s Daughter, Mrs MacMillan

Relatively few of the stories were familiar to me, and even the ones that were tended to come with unexpected twists. I recognised selkies and brownies, but it took a little longer for me to realise that Lasair Gheug was a version of Snow White where the seven dwarves have been replaced by twelve cats and a trout in a well takes the place of the magic mirror. I liked that in Ceanne Suic — a take on Rumplestiltskin — the woman who has to guess Ceann Suic’s name had already been threatened with the loss of her firstborn. It made her seem a lot more level-headed than the woman who promises her first child to escape a lie that had got out of hand.

An when he went oot the door, this auld woman started stamping her feet an cursin, ‘who told him aboot the witch’s knots in her hair? Who told him about that black cat? An who told them aboot the raven’s feathers? And who told them that I’d turned her feet tae the door?’ she says.

The Broonie, Betsy Whyte

Even if the stories themselves weren’t familiar to me: there were bits of them that were. The Broonie, for example, it a much more working class version of a story I’m familiar with in folksong.

Says ‘who was it who undid the nine witch knots
Braided in amongst this lady’s locks?
And who was it who the leather shoe untied
From the left foot of his wedded bride?
And who was it split the silken thread
The spider stretched all beneath this lady’s bed?
The spider stretched all beneath her bed.’

Willie’s Lady, Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer

It was fun to see little bits and pieces of things that I do know sprinkled in amongst the unfamiliar. This is definitely a collection I’d like to come back to. I think a lot of the stories would only improve with increasing familiarity!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert — New Review

Cover: goodreads.com

The Hazel Wood is one of those books that has been sitting on my ereader (nicknamed ‘Wendy’) for so long that I don’t remember where I heard about it. On reading it, I instantly assumed that Rebecca must have recommended it, because it sounds exactly like her kind of thing, but apparently not! I picked this to read on my recent flight back from Portugal, and the conditions meant I didn’t take many notes, so this may be a shorter-than-average review.

I don’t usually go in for books that are creepy. I’ve never been a big fan of horror. But I can appreciate that The Hazel Wood was definitely doing things right in that regard. The mystery of ‘Tales from the Hinterland’ drew me right through the opening chapters, and the sudden onslaught of an intruder definitely took me by surprise.

I’ve read a lot of books that borrow from fairy tales, but not many of them actually make up their own stories to borrow from! At least, as far as I know the stories of Alice Three-Times and Twice-Killed Katherine are unique to The Hazel Wood. They both succeed at having that fairy tale feeling while also adding something unusual.

Even once I got off the plane, I wanted to finish The Hazel Wood. Sadly, I don’t think the ending quite lived up to the promise of the beginning. It wasn’t bad, just not particularly memorable.

All in all, an enjoyable jaunt into something outside my usual reading habits. I wish I could remember where I’d picked up this recommendation from!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Fierce Fairytales & Other Stories to Stir Your Soul by Nikita Gill — New Review

Fierce Fairytales was a birthday present from Ally. I assumed it would be short stories, retellings of famous fairy tales with a twist, along the lines of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. I didn’t realise there’d be poetry, too, or that the reinterpretations of the classic tales would be more nuanced.

And the more she saw the kindness that was in Cinderella, the more she wanted to take it from her, so Cinderella would understand ho awful life can be.

Fierce Fairytales & Other Stories to Stir Your Soul, Nikita Gill

Fierce Fairytales opens with several pages of the poetry, which was fine, but which I didn’t enjoy as much as the short stories, so I’m glad I didn’t give up before I’d got to the bit I really loved. More than anything, the stories reminded me of things I’ve read on tumblr, which explore motivations of secondary characters in interesting ways. Indeed, Nikita Gill is on tumblr, where you can find some samples of her poems.

A hand is a small price to pay for a magical ship that will take him to Neverland, a place that lives on a star.

Fierce Fairytales & Other Stories to Stir Your Soul, Nikita Gill

The standout works from Fierce Fairytales, for me, were Boy Lost and Badrulbadour, both of which managed to pack a lot of story into a very short space. I enjoyed the longer stories, too, especially the ones about Wendy, Belle and Cinderella. I’d recommend reading this if you’re a fan of these kinds of stories posted on tumblr.

Next, I’ll be reading Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik — New Review

I was expecting Spinning Silver to be a solid reworking of a fairy tale, which would be enjoyable enough, but nothing to blow me away. I am delighted to have underestimated Naomi Novik in this instance, because Spinning Silver was absolutely fantastic. The early chapters drew me in by giving my excellent women to care about; women who help each other in the face of useless and abusive men. The different perspectives were so well handled that I thought I was going to be reading a novel told entirely from the viewpoints of the women in society, which I now think Naomi Novik could handle masterfully. Its almost a shame that isn’t what Spinning Silver ended up being  — but not really a shame, because I did enjoy the glimpses she provided of the male characters thought processes.

The only thing that had ever done me any good in my father’s house was thinking: no one had cared what I wanted, or whether I was happy.

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik

While I wasn’t blown away by Naomi Novik’s previous novel, Uprooted, I did enjoy the writing style, and Spinning Silver goes one better than that. The early chapters are so atmospheric that they reminded me of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, but what really impressed me was the use of metaphor throughout. The contrast between silver and gold is present in ways that are subtle at first, which build and build on each other as the story unfolds. Naomi Novik does some really clever things with world-building, too, using the tropes of ‘fairy tale logic’ to further both character development and the plot. That said, Spinning Silver isn’t anything so simple as just a retelling of Rumplestiltskin, it’s a story in its own right, which only takes elements from the original fairy tale, and most of those elements it twists in a clever way to make them more dramatic and more interesting. What I mean by fairy tale logic are the rules of magic in Naomi Novik’s kingdom, the rules of bargaining and promising, which feel familiar, but have also been given new significance.

He poured them back into the bag and pulled the drawstring tight around the golden light, like closing away a sunbeam, and the bag vanished beneath his long cloak.

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik

For an author I felt only lukewarm about before, Spinning Silver has absolutely made me into a fan, and I am excited to see what Naomi Novik’s next project will be. I really hope she does more novels in this style — and I’d particularly love for her to tackle The Snow Queen. I should mention that she’s funny, too, at least in little highlights here and there. I’d recommend Spinning Silver to anyone who enjoyed The Snow Child, or Stardust, or anything ever by Patricia C Wrede.

With a demon wanting to devour me, I was feeling inclined to be devout.

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik

Next, I’ll be reading The Salt Path by Raynor Winn.

Rating: 4 out of 5.