The Once and Future Witches
By Alix E. Harrow
I received an ARC of The Once and Future Witches from Redhook Books in exchange for an honest review.
Alix E. Harrow’s debut, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, made it clear that she was a writer to watch. Her follow-up, The Once and Future Witches, doesn’t quite capture the same magic—but calling it a sophomore slump doesn’t give it enough credit. Imagine someone goes to an art museum and takes a picture of a remarkable painting. The picture isn’t great: the painting isn’t fully in frame, and it’s slightly out-of-focus. You feel like you can’t fully appreciate it without seeing it in person, but you can still recognize the artistry. The Once and Future Witches is the picture of the painting—the scope is a shade too small, lacking crucial context, and the stakes and the characters don’t quite click until late in the novel. But they do click, and the shaky footing upon which the book begins stabilizes into a strong story as it enters its endgame.
That story, which takes place in 1893 in a world where witchcraft is real but largely extinct, follows three witch sisters: James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna (they loosely adhere to the archetypes of the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone, although Harrow somewhat undermines this). Connecting to these characters was difficult for me because they inhabit a liminal space between fable and reality—sometimes the sisters feel as if they stepped out of a fairy tale, and sometimes they feel like people you would meet on the street. The arc of the novel makes it clear that Harrow’s intent is bring these characters from the realm of reality into the realm of fable, but they pinball between both from the beginning and I struggled to penetrate the carapace of archetype and really get a sense of who the sisters were as people.
This is at least partially a symptom of the awkward chapters which open the book. I can’t quite decide if the story starts too late or too early; it’s hard to get a read on the relationship between the sisters because the novel opens after that relationship has fractured, but it’s also unclear what type of story is being told until 25% into the book, and the plot doesn’t start moving until 50% (which wouldn’t be as big of a problem if the first half had been spent digging deep into the characters, but most of those pages are empty calories). I’m thus inclined to believe the story starts too early—cutting at least a quarter of the novel would have done wonders for the book.
There’s still a lot to like about The Once and Future Witches. Harrow’s prose is heightened and stylized, but it rarely strays into garishness (rarely, not never). And the last 25% of the novel is strong in pretty much every respect: the stakes and the characters are finally in focus, and it feels like the story becomes what Harrow wanted it to be all along. If the whole book was on par with its climactic sequence, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. That said, even though I am hesitating, I am still recommending it. I love the gloriously diverse worldview of this novel—even cis men can be witches!—and Harrow is clearly having a lot of fun subverting the tropes of witchcraft with some legitimately clever twists. I know Harrow can do better because she already did in The Ten Thousand Doors of January, but if any of what I’ve said here appeals to you, and if you like your prose more lush than functional, The Once and Future Witches will likely be a winner for you.
Review by Erin Larson
The Once and Future Witches will be published October 13th, 2020.