The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I loved the author's first book, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. I thought it was beautifully written portal fantasy, and a lovely testament to the power of stories; themes that seem to run through her work. Certainly it's found in this book. The titular witches, fighting to bring back the power men have stripped from them, find their stories in scraps. Poems, songs, sayings, vignettes, small spells recited by young girls and boys alike, all collected over centuries by the first Three Witches and placed in a magical library. That library is briefly brought back by the three Sisters Eastwood, the protagonists of this story, and the way it's described (wonderfully so; Harrow's prose is just gorgeous), I could happily burrow in there and be lost for the rest of my life. When the magical library is burned by the men of New Salem, I felt its loss in my gut as if it were a tangible thing, as if the library had come to rest in my own town square and set aflame.
That's the power Alix E. Harrow brings to this book, which just might be my favorite book of 2020 (something I'd never thought I'd say in a year when N.K. Jemisin also has a book out, and Martha Wells released Murderbot's first full-length novel). In comparing this book with her first, I see the maturation of a writer who has an assured command of this story. She has three primary characters, the Sisters Eastwood who all find their true selves and forgive one another for past misunderstandings and sins. The power of sisterhood and celebrating the strength of women is also a strong theme in this book. This is an alternate America of 1893, where magic exists and the witches burned in Salem were the real thing, combined with the politics of suffragists campaigning for womens' rights and the vote. In the first few chapters, the estranged Eastwood sisters accidentally bring the long-hidden Library of Avalon back into the world, and the rest of the book is their fight to restore the full strength of magic to a world with fanatical men trying to stamp it out. They are also fighting to become a family again, to overcome the misunderstandings and betrayals that drove them apart.
There are so many good things about this book, but I think the characterizations stand out the most. The Eastwood sisters, Beatrice Belladonna, Agnes Amaranth and James Juniper, are sharply drawn and each goes on a personal journey that is tied to plot points and twists. Each faces a turning point inextricably tied to their individual characters. Beatrice, for instance, is a librarian, in love with words and stories, so of course her "dark night of the soul" is when the Library of Avalon burns. (Her growth is also shown by the change of name; she starts out timid and retiring and known as Beatrice, but as she accepts herself and comes into her strength, she is called Bella.) Agnes Amaranth becomes pregnant and gives birth over the course of the story, and her attempt to withdraw from her sisters and hide, keeping her head down to protect her child, doesn't work. She realizes that even though she wants to retreat from the world, the world won't leave her alone, and for the sake of her child, her sisters, and other women, she must stand and fight. And the youngest sister, James Juniper the ferocious, the firebrand who wants to watch the world burn, comes to the conclusion that the price for her rage may be too high after all....but at the book's climax, she is the one who steps up and pays it.
Because the characters and plot are so well integrated, the story is excellently paced. It's over five hundred pages, and I didn't think it lagged at all. The prose is beautiful, which is why it took me a little longer to finish this; I was taking my time to savor it. I expect this book to be nominated for this year's major awards--I sure as heck am going to talk it up. Do yourself a favor: get thee hence and snag a copy.
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